Gender Difference…what difference?

So I, a member of the ‘other side,’ attended my first feminist discussion group yesterday. All in all it was a fascinating experience, with an excellent array of speakers from all walks of feminism, from domestic violence charities to research into the philosophy of gender in sport. Yet the meeting really heated up when we began to ask ourselves what it was all about. ‘Gender equality’ was the boring, uninformative, obvious answer, but how to achieve it?

There were a number of different angles members of the group took. The first was the idea that ‘we should stop all this navel gazing, we haven’t said a word yet about rape, about violence, about oppression or discrimination.’ I’m sorry, but this attitude is both snobby and lazy in equal measure. Without a little navel-gazing, we’re flying blind. It’s like asking a medic to operate without knowing the goal of the operation.

Yes, we want equality, but it seems to me that there are at least two interpretations of what we mean by ‘equality.’ The first meekly acknowledges that there are two genders, ‘male’ and ‘female’ (and maybe we’ll allow an extra category for transgendered or hermaphrodite people) and all that needs to happen is to somehow give the two all the same opportunities, treat them equally in practice and so on. In my view, this is fundamentally the wrong attitude to take, because it implicitly reinforces the idea of people boxed primarily by their gender. The second, and better alternative, is to aim at dissolving the distinction altogether, so that the difference between ‘men’ and ‘women’ either doesn’t exist in our minds, or at the very least is so unimportant as to be regarded as the difference between having brown or blonde hair.

I can see the objections to this way of looking at things. Firstly, that there are obvious biological differences between men and women. Not so. There are biological differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ human organisms, but ‘people’ are a social construction out of much more than just their biological configuration. Think about it. Imagine a ‘spectrum of personhood,’ where somehow all the things that make you ‘you’ were taken into consideration. Why does one’s biological sex have to define you? Surely on the scale of personhood, Kelly Holmes is closer to Usain Bolt than she is to Baby Spice. There are so many other factors that define a person, including sexuality, physical build, tastes, preferences…the list is endless. By seeing the personhood question primarily in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women,’ you reinforce the idea of a meaningful difference between the two.

Another objection to my view is that for many people their manhood or womanhood is central to how they define themselves as a person. I can see this, of course I can, but I doubt very much that the things that these people celebrate about themselves need to be seen as inexorably linked to gender. Why can’t we celebrate things like the ability to have children, menstruation, having a certain physical figure, liking guys, girls or both, the way we hold ourselves in public, the way we conduct ourselves with regard to others…why can’t we celebrate these things in themselves, without needing to make the connection and claim that they are valuable only in so far as they define us as men or women?

OK, enough of the navel gazing – what’s the point of it? Well, my navel-gazing had a direct application to what was said in the discussion group by several attendees who were all of them adamant that women-only discussion groups were vital to the success of the feminist movement. I think they are painfully mistaken.

Let’s be clear here, nobody is suggesting that there aren’t currently, given the (unfortunate) way the world is set up, many appropriate situations where women-only groups are needed. I’d say that groups for the victims of domestic violence and women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidacies are prime examples of regrettably necessary women-only groups which the feminist movement can play a role in advocating. However, the feminist movement itself, in insisting on being all-women in other situations where there aren’t mitigating circumstances, is really shooting itself in the foot.

Surely, the feminist movement ought to be downplaying the significance of one’s gender as a meaningful distinguishing feature by which it’s OK to discriminate? Then why on earth is it reinforcing the difference with women’s-only groups? Quite apart from the fact that if men are the oppressors, they are the ones who need to get the message, in excluding them from the feminist movement in many important ways, feminism isn’t downplaying the gender difference, but revelling in it.


  1. Faith

    Okay, first of all, the ‘feminist movement’ is definitely not ‘insisting on being all-women in other situations where there aren’t mitigating circumstances’. I, for one, have only been involved in one gender-exclusive group in all my years as a feminist, and even this group very quickly voted to include men. The CUSU women’s campaign is not explicitly feminist, and we shouldn’t be including it under the label of ‘feminism’.

    Second of all, one of the most influential strands of feminism in the past two decades has been one that has strongly challenged the sex/gender distinction that was seemingly formulated by certain women writers in the 1970s (think Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone…). Your ‘spectrum of personhood’ is not a too farfetched way of articulating Butler’s ideas about gender as multifarious, reiterative, performative etc.

    The theory exists and it’s obviously attractive to feminists, particularly those that are tired of this harking back to the body as something that evokes ‘nature’ and biological essentialism.

    Re: the centrality/relativity of manhood/womanhood; I think you’re being idealistic not only about women but also about men. The only thing I’ve got to go on is history. It would be wonderful if women’s ability to have children and their ability to menstruate had not been/is not something that is often used to justify subordinate gender roles, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t the case. On a self-conscious level the centrality of manhood or womanhood might not be explicit, but studying gender gives us a finer picture of when and where it does take up a position of centrality. British politics in the 19th century is another good example of gender – ‘manhood’ this time – assuming a central role both in collective and individual gender identification. It really isn’t a coincidence that a marked proliferation of mutton-chop beards in the 1850s occurred just after an intense working-class campaign for ‘manhood suffrage’.

    The concept of ‘manhood citizenship’ actually segues quite nicely into why it is still pertinent to provide women-only spaces among the ‘feminist movement’. Being a citizen with equal democratic political and legal rights in this country has historically been defined as occupying a male gender identity. There was an act in 1850 passed by Lord Romilly stating that the term “man” in Parliamentary statutes was to be used generically, and to apply to both women and men. With the Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised a larger number of working classes, the courts rules that Lord Romilly’s act didn’t apply to women. As you know, full enfranchisement for women wasn’t won until 1928. And as everyone knows, there are still some serious outlying political inequalities to this day. The pay gap being one of the most obvious examples. To be a citizen in Britain has been something that has only incrementally included the concept of ‘woman’. We can hope and campaign and fight for a more egalitarian society, without the oppressive binaries which the status quo tends to offer, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. In whatever shape or form ‘feminism’ takes, the option should exist for women to organise, discuss, and share exclusively, because, let’s face it, the way we’ve collectively LIVED femininity and masculinity over the course of decades and centuries has been so different, and where the power has lain in these lives has been often so disproportionate.

  2. katyn

    yes i agree with this reply and it is much more eloquent than what i can manage.
    my basic problem with this argument (in the original article) is this
    1) yes gender is constructed
    2) but we still experience it and are oppressed by it!
    so even if we want to reject our gender roles, we arent always allowed to, and autonomous organising is crucial to giving space to women (or other oppressed, socially constructed categories of people) to rectify the lack of space they experience in decision making on a daily basis.

  3. Faith

    i agree. also, ben, i just wanted to add that i hope you don’t/haven’t read my above comment and thought it was aggressive, a friend of mine said she thought it was a bit! this definitely wasn’t my intention and i am a) totally thrilled that you came on monday and b) even more thrilled that you’ve started writing for g.a! more please 🙂 the women-only-group issue is a really relevant and productive thing to be thinking about. but essentially, yeah, i agree with katyn’s points. it guess it’s theoretically annoying to have to factor in women’s-only groups when feminism is in some measure about breaking down sexual difference, but we can only work with what’s available to us! but, likewise, we need to work with the productive vocabulary and tactics that are available to us in order to make sure that we aren’t entrenching these differences fruitlessly.

  4. Ben Weisz

    Sorry guys, I am admittedly new to this, and as such am not great at articulating myself – I do agree with everything you’ve said! Obviously, artificial gender differences ARE entrenched in society and women (as well as, arguably, gay or ‘effeminate’ (what a horrendously loaded word that is) men) are the victims of discrimination as a result of this.
    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest we should ignore the actual distinction when trying to bring about equality, just that in doing so we should be aiming to neutralise it. I’ve been thinking about it, and it would seem that autonomous women-only groups might be a good way of achieving this, so thanks katyn for the way you put that which made the idea clearer to me. However, I still believe that certain such groups aren’t about neutralising the distinction (which I still hold to be a worthwhile and important aim for feminism) but about revelling in it. Not that ALL such groups do so, but just that if you’re going to set one up, you have to be careful that that isn’t the stance it takes.

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