There certainly seems to be a great deal of confusion about basic terminology.  Let’s see if we can un-muddy the waters a bit.  This is taken from Trouble and Strife.


“Debbie Cameron: The purpose of today’s discussion is to try to cut through some of the theoretical and political confusion which now surrounds the concept of gender, and it’s probably useful to start by asking what’s causing that confusion.

Conversations about ‘gender’ nowadays often run into problems because the people involved are using the same word, to mean somewhat the same thing, but on closer examination they aren’t talking about the same set of issues from the same point of view. For instance, when we launched the T&S Reader at the Edinburgh radical bookfair, some women students came up to us afterwards and said they were very pleased we’d produced the book, but surprised it didn’t have much in it about gender. Actually it’s all about gender in the radical feminist sense–power relations between women and men–so this comment did not make much sense to us. Joan was initially completely baffled by it; I realised what they must be getting at only because I’m still an academic, and in the academy you hear ‘gender’ used this way a lot.

What’s going on here is that during the 1990s, queer theorists and queer activists developed a new way of talking about gender: it did have points of overlap with the older feminist way of talking, but the emphasis was different, the theory behind it was different (basically it was the postmodernist theory of identity associated with the philosopher Judith Butler, though I don’t think Butler herself would say that feminists had no critical analysis of gender), and the politics that came out of it were very different. For people whose ideas were formed either by encounter with academic feminist theory or by involvement in queer politics and activism, that became the meaning of ‘gender’. They believed what they’d been told, that feminists in the 70s and 80s didn’t have a critical analysis of gender, or that they had the wrong analysis because their ideas about gender were ‘essentialist’ rather than ‘social constructionist’.

We don’t believe that, and in a minute we’ll explain why. But first it’s worth doing a general ‘compare and contrast’ on the ‘old’ feminist view of gender and the newer version that came out of 1990s queer theory/politics.

  ‘Old’ gender ‘New’ gender
What is gender? A system of social/power relations structured by a binary division between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Categorization is usually on the basis of biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social rather than biological thing (e.g. masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places) An aspect of personal/social identity, usually ascribed to you at birth on the basis of biological sex (but this ‘natural’ connection is an illusion—as is the idea that there have to be two genders because there are two sexes)
What’s oppressive about it? The fact that it’s based on the subordination of one gender (women) by the other (men) The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
What would be a radical gender politics? Feminism: women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?)

There are both similarities and differences between the two versions. For both, gender is connected to, but not the same as, sex; for both, gender as we know it is a binary system (there are, basically, two genders); and both approaches would probably agree that gender is about power AND identity, but their emphasis on one or the other differs. They also differ because supporters of the queer version don’t think in terms of men oppressing women, they think gender norms as such are more oppressive than power hierarchy, and want ‘more’ gender rather than less or none.”

Woo, that’s probably enough for part one. :)