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National NOW Times >> Fall, 2001 >> Article

Viewpoint: Sex Versus Gender

by Loretta A. Kane, former Vice President-Action

I have great concerns about the trend to embrace gender – both as a term and as the foundation of a political movement. My primary opposition is that gender is nothing more than an arbitrary social construct, the sole purpose of which is to keep women in subservient roles.

According to Merriam-Webster, gender is “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” – while sex is defined as “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male.” In other words, gender is subjective. Sex is biological.

While Gertrude Stein might argue that “a rose is a rose is a rose,” I believe that the difference between sex and gender is of paramount importance to women and the feminist movement. Further, the new “gender rights movement” – which is touted by many as the logical next step in the so-called post-feminist era – will, ultimately, hurt women.

I have visited many college campuses across the country. During all of my trips, I have held organizing meetings to work with students, faculty and staff on a variety of feminist campaigns. The first place I land on a campus is always the women’s studies department. (And that has been true without fail.) While I am not a big fan of academic feminism, it is the case that women’s studies breeds feminists. And some of those feminists are just waiting for us to turn them into activists. (Many, of course, already are activists!)

The patriarchy understands the power of women’s studies. And one of the most effective weapons against women’s studies is gender studies. Time after time, I have encountered women’s studies professors who have been under attack because women’s studies is “sexist.” They are pressured to convert their programs to gender studies – which, of course, is alright because it includes men.

If left unchallenged, gender studies programs will usher in the end of women’s studies, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies. And it also will open the door for men’s studies courses to be taught in the name of fairness. How long before we see Wade Horn or some other misogynist fathers’ rights leader teaching gender studies courses? By embracing gender, academia is poised to weaken or annihilate already struggling women’s studies programs throughout the country.

Similarly, I believe that the gender rights movement will have the same impact on the feminist movement. And, perhaps even more importantly, the very laws we pass to promote women’s equality may serve to reverse the progress the feminist movement has gained for women. How much good (if any) can come from codifying gender? After all, gender is, by definition, a discriminatory concept. Transsexualism and transgenderism complicate the discussion. Many feminist scholars suggest that sex change operations and medical therapies are little more than self-mutilation by individuals who are driven to desperation by a sexist society. These scholars argue that sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapies would be unnecessary in a world devoid of sexism. They challenge us to fix the real problem (society), instead of operating on otherwise healthy bodies to make them conform to gender stereotypes.

Others argue that such opinions are insulting, if not malicious, and that critics of transsexualism and transgenderism do not understand the complexity of gender identity. And unfortunately, many transgender people have encountered prejudice and discrimination within the feminist movement.

It is difficult to discuss these matters in a positive, non-threatening manner. Violence against transgender people is condoned in our society – at least tacitly if not explicitly. As feminists, we must ensure that our discourse on these issues does not contribute to the alienation or denigration of transgender people.

However, while we must not act out of malice and prejudice, we also must be careful not to jump on the gender bandwagon in an attempt to reach out to those who have been disenfranchised. We also have an obligation to have an honest discussion about sex and gender. We cannot blithely accept gender, gender studies or gender rights. We must determine whether gender rights will facilitate progress for women, or if gender rights is part of the backlash against women.

We owe it to ourselves, our organization and our movement to have respectfully thoughtful discourse on this subject. And we owe it to feminists everywhere to thoroughly analyze the impact of gender and gender rights on women’s issues and women’s lives, before charting a new course for our movement.

Editors Note: We hope this Viewpoint will be a catalyst for an open and honest discussion around the issue of gender. With that in mind, this issue's survey is dedicated to gathering your thoughts on gender within the context of our movement for women's rights. 

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