You say gender is a structure of power.
Koen Ahn
11

You’re just going in circles, not answering my questions, and repeating your three central assertions. Let’s go through them one at a time.

1. “There’s no such thing” as men and women, and “talking about people as being in these categories is dangerous as it allows for the generalisations we are trying to avoid” / “By telling people their gender identity or sex is linked to their place in society, you are caging them and perpetuating gender roles”: This is analogous to the “I don’t see race / But race is a social construct, it isn’t real / aren’t we all just people” argument; for simplicity’s sake we’ll call it the “I don’t see gender” argument. At best, even if you genuinely have good intentions and simply want to declare that all people have equal inherent worth and should be treated as such, it’s unnecessary and irrelevant because no one is disputing it. At worst, you’re arguing in bad faith: derailing a discussion of existing inequality by conflating equal worth (true) with current equal treatment (false).

Pretending inequality doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, and in fact actively hinders efforts to make it go away. Pretending the categories which are the basis of that inequality don’t exist doesn’t make them go away either: not the material-reality parts of them, that would exist whether or not we had words for them (like sex), and not the constructed meanings for those material realities either (like gender.)

Even if you, as I do, want those constructed meanings to eventually lose their meaning (in your conception, to totally avoid generalizations, and make it actually true that no one’s sex is linked to their place in society, that there’s no such thing as men and women — i.e., to abolish gender), in order to do that we must first acknowledge which categories of people are being treated unequally, and how and why they are sorted into these categories. And we must have words to identify what we’re talking about. So the statement is either true but trivial, or obviously false — and worse, hinders our ability to acknowledge or solve existing inequality.

2. “You say gender is a structure of power. While it certainly is, it is also a person’s identity.” / “You don’t get to tell people w[h]ether or not they qualify as being of any gender.” This is the “gender is (solely or mostly) an innate, internally felt identity” argument. There’s a lot to unpack and disagree with here. First, the fact that gender is part of one’s identity does not make it individually malleable. Having had the experience of being socialized and treated by society in particular ways due to sex is indeed an important facet of one’s identity, but in general, individuals do not have the power to dictate their own social identities, especially those based on visible, immutable traits like sex.

Second and relatedly, the fact that someone feels something deep inside does not necessarily make it true. Not all self-identifications are equally credible. Like I said above, I can’t credibly describe myself as Canadian, or a baroness, even if internally I really feel like I am. The facts of my life contradict what those words mean. That doesn’t mean people are choosing or deciding to deny me that status, when they say, “But you’re not a member of the hereditary aristocracy,” or “No, you may not vote in Canadian elections.” They aren’t cruelly excluding me or ‘invalidating my identity’ or trying to make me change anything about myself, including how I feel inside. They’re just acknowledging that those words have widely used meanings, which exist because they describe socially consequential things (ancestry, citizenship), and neither I nor they have the power to change those meanings by fiat.

Third, having personality traits and performing behaviors currently associated with the opposite sex is not what any feminist is trying to say someone can’t ‘qualify’ for. No feminist is saying anyone should or must conform to the expectations placed on them by the interaction of their sex and their society: they’re saying the exact opposite, that those expectations are harmful and limiting and should not be applied to anyone. Gender non-conformity is a good thing! But once separated from the sexed basis of those expectations, one’s personality, presentation and hobbies alone are not a socially meaningful or coherent identity. In other words, those things aren’t what gender is. They’re what gender dictates or forbids based on sex.

3. “[A] person who sees herself as female or having female traits, can happily express this femininity without society telling her she’s inferior.” / “If defining what it means it be a woman is part of the problem (your words not mine) then how can you define femininity as being the oppression that comes with it?” / “We can only be equal if we stop telling women they are victims and stop telling men they are rapists.” We’ll call this the “femininity and masculinity are not inherently oppressive” argument. But again: pretending inequality doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. As long as men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of rape and women overwhelmingly their victims, what good does it do to say that’s not so, or pretend that masculinity (in this case, telling men they are rapists) and femininity (telling women they are victims) are equally culpable for that fact? It’s obvious that femininity and masculinity are not equally harmful. Femininity is not something separable from “the oppression that comes with it,” for a few reasons. Femininity and masculinity are part of the oppression associated with sex, not a fun cornucopia of aesthetics and preferences with equal value. If those aesthetics and preferences were divorced from sex-based expectations, they would not be ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ any more.

To expand on that a little: femininity and masculinity markers vary a great deal across times and cultures, which is one way we know they’re socially constructed. The only constants are that 1) male people are expected to perform masculinity and female people are expected to perform femininity (i.e. the roles are tied to presumed reproductive function); 2) male people are a dominant class while female people are a subordinate class (sexism/patriarchy); and 3) gender non-conformity is punished (i.e. male people are punished for acting ‘feminine,’ female ones for acting ‘masculine.’)

Note that this is NOT the same as saying “femininity is punished/stigmatized in both men and women, so we just need to end stigma toward femininity and that will solve the oppression of both feminine and female people,” which I think is roughly what you’re saying (if not, let me know.) If this were so, we would expect gender non-conforming, ‘masculine’ female people to be treated better than gender-conforming, ‘feminine’ female people, but in fact they are treated worse: from verbal abuse and bullying to hate crimes like murder and ‘corrective’ rape. Having a system of femininity and masculinity at all, where desirable and undesirable traits and behaviors are arbitrarily tied to sex, and one sex is dominant over the other, furthers the subordination of female people and harms all people.

My words, by the way, were actually that “defining certain personalities, behaviors, and presentations as feminine or masculine (and thus inherent to/required of male or female people) is the entire problem.” Defining ‘what it means to be a woman’ is part of the problem because in an ideal world, being a woman shouldn’t have to ‘mean’ anything at all for your personality, presentation, interests, worth, or role in society. Neither should being a man. There should be neutral terms for sex, which will remain medically relevant if nothing else. But that’s not the world we live in yet, and if we want to fight that we have to acknowledge what we’re fighting.