Imagine There’s No Gender: It’s Not Easy, But We Can Try

“Imagine a world without gender.”

That’s the directive in the email signature of Judith Lorber, author of Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change. It’s one I find deeply inspiring, but I can already hear the chorus of feminist objections. Let me address some of those from my perspective as a feminist sociologist.

Without gender, we’d all just be a uniform mass of people dressed in the same burlap sack or something. (I’ve heard this from students.)

Quite the opposite! Our gender structure forces each of us into a woman-or-man binary, each of which comes with an extensive list of Dos and Don’ts. Gender is already making us too uniform. If the Dos and Don’ts disappeared, we would enjoy a dazzling kaleidoscope of diversity. People would play with their appearance, or not, according to personal interest rather than in keeping with existing norms that instruct us from our head down to our toenails. Genderqueer, intersex and trans people are stigmatized at present, but give us a glimpse of the kaleidoscopic possibilities in our future. Imagine the liberation of ridding families and workplaces of their gendered Dos and Don’ts.

But I like gender! Who am I if not a woman, and who is my child if not my son, the boy?

It’s true: Gender is very important to our identities, and it orients us in interacting with others. Theorists acknowledge that one byproduct of eliminating gender would be “gender vertigo,” an unsteady and vulnerable feeling. My belief is that this isn’t insurmountable: We would have to adjust and recover, but it would be worth it in the end. With the oppressive structure of gender gone, we would all be more free.

But gender is what makes sex hot. (I got this response on Twitter to the mention of degendering.)

Well, yes: the way things are now, gender makes sex hot. That can include both the traditional heterosexual script and the many options for bending and playing with gender. But although people make use of gender, it doesn’t follow that they need to. I have no doubt that there are plenty of other ways to generate heat in the bedroom.

Beware: If we decide to officially ignore gender, we might just allow injustices to continue unchecked.

This is a legitimate concern, which echoes criticism of “colorblindness.” For instance, if we stopped collecting racial data in the U.S. Census, we would no longer know whether children of color have higher risks than white kids of poverty or exposure to pollution. Sadly, they do, and post-racial colorblindness is absolutely no way to solve the problem; by definition it is a way to ignore the problem. For both race and gender, research and intervention must continue as long as “there’s a there there.” In the imagined future when the researchers have no more findings to report, then they would finally be out of business.

People won’t want to work together on this across lines of class, race or sexuality.

Yes, history shows us that sometimes movements for a single social justice are weakened because of internal divisions along another axis. To be more blunt, the women’s movement has been plagued at times by classism, racism, transphobia and homophobia. Ideally, everyone opposed to injustices would band together in the spirit of bell hooks to fight oppression of all kinds. If that day comes, I will dance with joy in the streets. In the meantime, if we cannot orchestrate synchronized action, we can at least expect actions that are parallel and not at cross-purposes. So: Work to end gender should support other social justice work where possible, and at the least do it no harm.

Speaking of social justice work: why spend time on this pie-in-the-sky degendering, while women are being raped, beaten and murdered the world over?

Indeed, it’s mainly the secure and educated who have the luxury of these discussions. I’m not trying to claim that degendering is the most urgent of all social justice actions. This theorizing is at some distance from the “front lines,” but absolutely not unconnected. It can put all sorts of social justice work into a larger context and expand our ideas about what is ultimately possible.

 ♦

I may not have entirely quelled your objections to a world without gender, but I hope I’ve at least piqued your interest. The next question people usually have is: Could it ever really happen?

Ending gender is, indeed, no simple task. It would require a multitude of actions in many different kinds of places. It’s helpful to think in terms of three levels of society: individuals, institutions and interactions. (See Risman 1998 & 2004.)

The second wave of American feminism made great inroads here. At the institutional level, we celebrate the victories of laws for equity like Title IX, and laws against gender-based harassment and discrimination at work. Encoding equal treatment into law is an important prerequisite to doing away with gender. At the individual level, many Gen-X-ers like me were raised to the tune of Marlo Thomas’s Free To Be You And Me and encouraged to ignore outdated stereotypes of boys’ and girls’ activities.

Still, you don’t need to watch Toddlers and Tiaras to know that children are still being raised in very gender-specific ways. As Gloria Steinem said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” I agree, and I would set the goalpost even further: that we evolve to the point where her statement is as meaningless as the prospect of “raising the blue-eyed more like the brown-eyed.”

The inroads at the individual and institutional levels have only yielded modest, inconsistent success. So, more recently, scholars have acknowledged the importance of an intermediate level, that of interactions. We know now that to be effective, we must intervene at all three levels of society. We cannot choose one “primary” one as the driver of the other two; unfortunately, life isn’t that simple. (One of my professors quips: “Sociology isn’t brain surgery. It’s way more complex than that.”)

  • Individuals: Encourage people, including yourself, to be well-rounded, whole individuals, with competencies that exceed masculine and feminine limits. Let go of homophobia and don’t tolerate it in others. Homophobia is the punk little brother of misogyny: they are a team, so confront them both.
  • Interactions: Stop policing gender norms. As much as you possibly can, accept gender rule-breaking appearances, action, and identities. In fact, encourage them! Try them yourself! Encourage especially younger people to be gender explorers rather than gender police. Also be on the lookout for unconscious bias, and confront it with counter-measures.
  • Institutions: In addition to holding onto the legal gains we’ve made, we must seek new ones. Here are four to start:
  1. Legalize same-sex marriage. Family duties and roles should not be assigned based on gender. Therefore any pair of people that wants to could make a good family.
  2. Fight “family responsibilities discrimination.” An offshoot of workplace discrimination against women is discrimination against employees with family responsibilities. Legal victories are accumulating here and helping to redefine employers’ expectations of employees. Instead of the abstract “ideal worker” (read: man with a wife at home to take care of domestic duties), our culture must embrace the notion that every worker also has a life.
  3. Improve reproductive rights. Gender inequalities will persist as long as restrictions on contraception and abortion hinder women from controlling their childbearing. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore made a powerful speech portraying how “unplanned parenthood” can affect women and children.
  4. Implement bias-busting workplace practices. Although the specifics vary, we are all the products of a sexist society to some extent. Research shows the ways in which unconscious bias works in favor of men in the workplace (as well as, of course, white people). Fortunately, research also shows how to cancel out those forces, and those countermeasures should be implemented for the sake of fairness.

The whole prospect of the end of gender, after all, is about fairness. We know that “separate but equal” has a history of failure, so let’s do away with all the separateness. In the end, we would gain back so much energy that’s now wasted on power struggles and on following, or sometimes bucking, the myriad prescriptions of gender. Instead, personal freedom would expand for everyone. It’s worth imagining.

Photo from flickr user celesteh under Creative Commons 2.0

The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot have collaborated on a special series about the End of Gender. Dozens of bloggers are taking on Hanna Rosin’s ongoing (and recently reignited) “End of Men” argument and what meaning gender has in contemporary society. This collaboration includes bloggers from Good Men Project, Role/RebootThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

Comments

  1. Ms. Magazine tried to float this idea in the 1970s. It didn’t “take” then and it won’t now, either. But all your suggestions for improving how we understand gender expression are good. Add a few more: Extend anti-discrimination laws to include transgendered people and people whose biological sex is ambiguous…or include the terms “sexual or gender identity, expression or orientation.” Pressure manufacturers of clothes, toys, and other items for babies and children to multiply color choices and not stereotype them for boys or girls. Campaign seriously for national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave (up to two years) for women and childcare leave for both parents. Boycott TV advertisers showing stereotyped gender images. None of that will “eliminate” gender, but at least we can refuse to be boxed in by other people’s definitions of what is gender-appropriate.

    • Yes to all except 2 years paid leave for mothers (but maybe mandatory parental leave for fathers instead). 2-3 years paid leave for mothers is used in Austria (my home country) by the right wing government to keep women away from the labor market, it aggravates job reentry and reinforces de-qualification processes…but really we should abolish capitalism along with gender, so we won’t need to participate in the low wage circus to survive and have more time for genderfuck ;-)

  2. I needed to read this today. Thank you for writing. I will strive towards a world that values gender bending, and rejects gender policing.

  3. I love the way you write, Jess! So descriptive, yet succinct. The parts about gender exploration are my favorites. I’ve been trying to break some old habits in this regard myself (some learned helplessness, for example.) Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. I love this piece! I will most definitely use it for teaching! Thank you Jessica Holden Sherwood for making my day!

  5. Iliana Echo says:

    Unfortunately, the only thing this makes me think of is the Star Trek episode “The Outcast” where having a gender identity becomes the gender-queer way to be. I’m all for doing away with the binary, but I’d be worried about going too far the other way. How do we maintain a balance?

  6. just… thank you.

  7. Heather McLees-Frazier says:

    Hmm…as a feminst mother of two young boys, I am all for not pigeonholing children and their activities by gender, but I’ve also learned that some gender-related things often thought to be socially-programmed are in fact innate. Example: most boys are more physically active, and have more trouble sitting still and listening, than girls their own age, and research has shown that this same paradigm exists from infancy in mammalian species across the board. That said, I work hard to help my boys be aware of and know how to express their feelings, to learn to contribute to household work, and to try anything they’re interested in, whether it’s a “girl” activity or not. My oldest just found a pair of my old ballet pointe shoes and said, “But boys don’t do ballet.” Our response was simple: boys are very important in ballet, just like they are in every other activity. In the talk about eliminating gender, let’s not lose sight of the fact that women and men ARE innately different, and each have special gifts to bring to the table.

  8. I don’t think it’s the concept of gender itself that needs to go, but the concept that because someone is such and such, they must behave like such and such, and it’s far, far broader than gender. For example, people who assume that because someone has dark skin, they’ll like hip hop and hate heavy metal, or people who assume that someone in a wheel chair must have a learning difficulty to go with not having legs… that a guy who is gay must collect dolls and like pink sparkly things… People make assumptions, they believe that the human race adheres to stereotypes. The gender stereotypes are just far more globally culturally entrenched than some of the others, but the problem isn’t perceiving gender, it is adding an assumption to that perception. For some reason, there’s a lot of people out there who can’t deal with people on an individual basis and feel compelled to firstly pigeonhole them into stereotypes, and then pile hatred and slander on the heads of those they don’t want to understand. Eliminating gender is as silly as pretending people have all got exactly the same colour skin. People are biologically different, in fact, people are just different and instead of ignoring those differences, they should be seen as beautiful variety. Unfortunately many societies do not want a “beautiful variety” and see a binary system or sometimes a pixelated greyscale, where there should be a rainbow.

    We do not need a lack of gender perception to stop adhering to cultural norms, just the courage to be ourselves in the face of adversity. Yes, this can be dangerous, I know that because I’ve endured violence for nothing bigger than “being different”, but it’s far more productive in the long run. Be the change you want to see in the world.

  9. I read your article with great interest. I am a gender variant person, transgender for lack of a better term. When I began sorting out my gender I was certain I was a Male to Female Transsexual; however, through counseling and a lot self introspection, reaching out to other transgender people, and social observation, I now question the gender binary all together. Gender transition, for me personally, seemed like I was jumping from one extreme to the other and trading one set of issues for another. More to the point after going through the physical, emotional and social disruption associated with transitioning – would I be better off? Defining better off is an individual process.

    The gender binary is pervasive and has positives and negatives. It orders the world so we can keep biology and reproduction straight and it paints groups of people with common assumptions impacting every aspect of their lives, often positively for white men and negatively for everyone else. Typically when I meet a new person the first thing I register is woman or man and ethnicity, I suspect that is the case for most people, in making that judgment an entire set of assumptions are made as to how we relate to that other person – it happens without really thinking about it. Deconstruction of the gender binary would place many people into the gender vertigo referred in your article. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing just an uncomfortable thing for many. From my perspective and observation changing assumptions associated with gender is a long and granular and never ending process.

    I think a lot of progress has been made in the past 20 years regarding equity for gender and gender expression in our culture and I feel strongly that there is still much to be done. The media coverage while not always flattering has moved gender variant identities from the fringe into the living rooms of many people. In the USA there is cultural awareness that people do regularly cross gender barriers and that leads one to consider why the context of simply two genders that frames the concept of crossing the barrier. Unfortunately, for many there are significant negative physical, social and financial consequences for “crossing” gender barrier. Awareness is one thing, acceptance and being welcomed as part of the society is another matter all together.

    As Feathers writes above “just the courage to be ourselves “ captures the idea that we should look at others more from a sense of identity meaning looking at who they are and how they relate to those around them rather than “what” they are. The tendency to make culturally invisible, exclude and marginalize the identities that do not fit the normal assumptions associated with “what” a person is supposed to be is a product of rigid binary thinking and the origin of much hatred and violence.

    The Utopian in me would love to see a world where the freedom to express our feminine and masculine attributes are valued and celebrated and the realist in me understands that it is not happening anytime soon. “Imagine there’s no gender” it’s a great idea – let’s all work on it together.

  10. I do not understand why everything must have a label and must fit into a little box, I am who I choose to be and I do what I choose to do because I choose to.

  11. Is being “straight” or “gay” sexist?

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