The Social Construction of Gender
In my soon to be published Memoirs I naturally referred to coming out as a lesbian, but it is only now that I am coming to the end of my story that the notion of the construction of gender occurs to me. And what I mean by the words social construction is the creation of the idea and an ideology that justifies the domination of one group of people by another group of people. I saw early on as I experienced and recognised racism as a set of relationships which placed men in superior position and women and girls in inferior or subordinate place in whichever society they created. Except of course in exceptional circumstances- Queens Elizabeth First and Second, and likewise in ancient times China and elsewhere some women were heads of state.
But in the 1950’s when I was a growing girl until much later in my life I saw the dominance of men as usual and indeed natural. My becoming both a lesbian and a feminist forced me to think critically about the naturalness of this power relationship. And the more I looked the more I could see that it was very much constructed as an idea and indeed an ideology. It was and is also reinforced by violence and fear.
There may be quite a few people who think that what I have just said is nonsense and that men’s physical power is a reflection of their superior status, and yet when I look critically as the enslavement of African men and women, undertaken in the 18th Century on an industrial scale, it is seen as natural and indeed desirable for the advancement of Europe and Europeans. Most people, and regrettably not all, now think that enslaving more than 22 million African peoples to fuel parts of the Industrial Revolution was not a good or virtuous thing, even if these days African peoples are no longer enslaved for the gains of Europe and the USA African peoples are still treated less favourably than others.
And likewise, the treatment of women in the one region I know well- the UK has in only the last few decades begun to provide equality to women and girls. And the reason that women are routinely paid less than men or are pushed aside in favour of less competent men is that of the notion of gender. Gender assigns particular characteristics to men and to women, just as race assigns particular characteristics to White people and the Black peoples. And until recently I had not seen how these ideas were ‘man-made’. There are real differences between men and women but these differences are only biological differences concerning the reproduction of the human species, social differences have occurred when men have used their superior physical power to enforce the suppression of women, whether it is by excluding us from Universities and the professions until recent years, and by violence against women -often by rape- within Marriage or on the Street.
And whilst in the last six decades African and Caribbean Countries are no longer ruled directly by European States contracts for the exploitation of minerals and others natural products often they continue to be operated under contracts signed before so-called Independence. The point is that though some external material things have changed for the better we in the West do not think that it is right or reasonable that Africa and Africans are financially exploited, even though it now happens away from our gaze. But this exploitation is generally seen to be wrong, by those who get to see it up front. In the UK we have had laws to end this exploitation and in the main, most of the peoples of the UK agree that it is wrong even if they do not know what those laws say and do. Nonetheless, we no longer agree that Black people are not equal to White people, or at least most of us don’t.
But when it comes to the notion of gender it seems that many in the media and I single out the Guardian seem to think that there are genders without recognising that gender is very much a ‘manmade notion rather as ‘races‘ are. As I said earlier I too thought that there were genders when I was a little girl I grew up with the rhyme ‘sugar and spice and all things nice that what little girls are made of’ and boys were ‘slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails- that’s what little boys are made of’. Boys were expected to fight and girls to simper. And our mothers, if they worked outside of the home received sometimes less than a man doing the same or similar work. Women fought for equal pay and despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 still, do not receive it.
So, when I think of gender think of inequality and stereotypes of male and female and it seems to me that the new Trans politics does not necessarily embrace these stupid ideas but it does hark back to the stereotype of ‘sugar and spice’. This is especially so for the men who put on what often look like their mothers’ cast-offs but insist on keeping their willies.
It is they who call any of us women who disagree with them TERFs and any critical thing we have to say about ‘gender’ is apparently transphobic and sufficient for us to be boycotted or ‘unplatformed’ as has happened to me on a number of occasions. I can imagine how unhappy some of them would be if I were to call them ’racist’ every time they disagreed with my views.
Gender is a man-made notion and I mean specifically a notion dreamt up by men and it is unhelpful to the fight for equality that women still have to gain equality in most societies. This is why some of the most backwards-looking political regimes (Iran comes to mind immediately) welcomes and support Trans women because Trans reinforces that system of power called gender that oppresses women.
I know men and women who have transitioned from female to male and more from male to female and I have been persuaded that theirs have been real physiological needs, but it does not frankly matter whether I understand and/or support them or not what is clear is that the new politics of Trans is about men’s’ power and privileged being asserted by claiming in the UK a right to enter women's hard-won spaces- such as the Hampstead Ladies Swimming pond, Changing rooms and other spaces fought for by women at a time when previously we had been confined to our homes, under the ownership of fathers, brothers and husbands. This is the history that is uppermost in the minds and hearts of feminists who know that women's freedom has been won at a hard price. I for one will not give it up lightly. They can put me in gaol if they insist but I stand with all for women and girls.