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lundi 10 octobre 2005

Tell me, what does "gender" really mean ?

par Marie-Victoire Louis, researcher at CNRS

Écrits d'Élaine Audet

Chercher dans ce site


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So I did some research to see how the word was really used, especially in the area of social science research, but also in the area of politics - they can’t, at least here, be separated.

And here is what I have read, among other things :

I. I read that for some, women and men, gender was a concept (1) ; for others, a piece of equipment, an approach, a basis, a catalyst, a component, an analytical category, a condition, a dimension, an area, a stake, an epistemology, an ideology, a language, a mechanism, a notion, an analytical tool, a paradigm, a perspective, a problematic, a question, a revelator, a role, a system, a theme, a variable, a vector of value...

II. I read that gender research and studies are to be distinguished from studies and research of gender and on gender ; that one speaks of gender or the gender ; that the word can be singular or plural.
I also read that there were studies/research on sex relations and gender relations, on gender and social relations, on gender studies and French gender studies.

III. I read that there was research :
Concerning gender and world, gender and nation, gender and politics, gender and literature, gender in Mauritania, gender in the United States, gender and public policies, gender and local employment, gender and working hours policies, gender and social capital, gender and territories, gendered work...

But also on : gender and political action, gender and bioethics, gender and citizenship, gender and trade, gender and creation, gender and culture, gender and family law, gender and water, gender and economics, gender and equality, gender and employment, gender and empowerment, gender and public space, gender and religion, gender and families, gender and grammar, gender and social justice, gender and the work market, gender and activism, gender and entry into collective action, gender and globalization, gender and the death of Christian culture, gender and multiculturalism, gender and change, gender and poverty, gender and politics, gender and power, gender and advertising, gender and social relations, gender and social/sexual relations, gender and society, gender and international relations, gender and retirement, gender and sexism, gender and working time, gender and human trafficking, gender and transition, gender and rural transportation, gender and the city, gender and violence...

And on more complex structures such as : Employment, gender and migration ; gender, social questions and health ; knowledge, gender and social/sexual relations ; society, family and gender ; women, gender and societies ; gender, violence and health ; work, gender and society ; social change, gender and population ; demography, gender (1) and society ; gender, art and creation ; gender, humanitarian action and development ; culture, religion and gender ; gender, sexual violence and justice ; immigration, feminism and gender ; violence,, insecurity and gender ; gender, violence and crises ...

I have read that a lot of research deals with social gender and sexual gender, much less than with class and gender, and more recently, that the question of relations between race and gender was being posed : race, gender and sex ; race gender and class ; race, castes and gender are being studied...

IV. I’ve read that it was important to reflect on gender, to accept the premises that belonging to a gender influences the vision of the world ; that gender has to be analyzed, understood, explored, used, developed, integrated, theorized ; that it was necessary to put gender glasses on ; to pay specific attention to gender ; to encourage questions about gender ; to transmit gender studies...

I’ve read that gender makes one rethink categories and patterns of thinking ; that gender relations go across all boards ; that gender problematics keep coming, overlap, crisscross and bump into each other ; that gender had heuristic virtues ; that gender representations influence the creation of social and economic realities ; that the right to think about gender was asserted ; that no one can neglect gender ...

V. I’ve read that many questions have been asked about gender : Can research ignore gender ? How to correlate sex and gender ? Which gender for equality ? Does gender have an impact on politics ? What are the effects of gender ? What intersections between sex and gender can be made ? What is the future of gender ? Should one speak of sexual identity, sexed identity or gender identity ? Can one reflect on science without gender awareness ? gender or sex : who gets the benefit ?

VI. I have read that there were activities, gender data banks, bibliographies, offices, catalogues, an international charter, publications, experts of both sexes, courses, trainers, fund raising, international meetings, indicators, initiatives, concept engineers, institutes, poles, a portal, programs, networks, journals, internet sites, statistics, and units ; that there were data banks, bibliographies, offices, catalogues, an international charter, publications, experts of both sexes, courses, trainers, collections, international meetings, indicators, initiatives, concept engineers, institutes, poles, a portal, programs, networks, journals, internet sites, statistics, and units of gender, on gender and on gender.

I’ve read that thanks to gender it was possible to leave the ghetto of women’s studies...

VII. I’ve read that history was gripped by gender ; that all historical change is accompanied by an adjustment to gender ; that gender proposes a sexed rereading of historical events and phenomena ; that the history of women has led to the history of genders ; that the history of genders has taken the place of the history of women...

I’ve read that this was also true of sociology, philosophy, anthropology, grammar, and literary, economic and visual arts analysis...

I’ve read that law should introduce gender in its structure ; that including gender identity into legal texts was an incontrovertible duty ; that gender was linked to inequalities in legal matters ; that laws were blind to gender ; that there was such a thing as gendered justice ; that there was such a thing as gendered equity ; that it was necessary to define gender equality ; that research has been done on gendered science of law and politics ; that the question of gender and the rule of law was posed...

VIII. I’ve read that there were gendered belongings, gender conflicts, gender consciences (or consciousness ?), gender discriminations, gender hierarchy, gender inequalities, gender practices, gender privileges, gender relations, gender representations, gender roles, feelings of belonging to a gender ...

I’ve read that there were gender identities, that gender identity is the source of self-identity ; that gender identity is what enables the child to say boy or girl ; that gender identity is to know that one belongs to a specific sex ; that gender identity is knowing oneself male or female ; that discrimination linked to gender identity is called transphobia...

IX. I’ve read that women are a gender because they have a sex ; that gender implies that there is only the female sex ; that women precede gender and gender precedes women ; that gender enables thinking on differences among women...

I’ve read that gender explains how societies differentiate between men and women ...

I’ve read that one speaks of sex and/or of gender ; of a sexual/ gender system ; of women, sex and the gender ; of ’women, sexes or gender ; of differences of sex and of gender ...

I’ve read that it was necessary to distinguish between sex and gender ; that gender coincides with the sex ; that gender produces the sex ; that gender is glued to the sex even before the sex really exists ; that the sex of individuals is transformed into gender ; that there were perverse effects in distinguishing between sex and gender ; that the sex does not express gender and that gender does not express the sex ; that gender denaturalizes sexual differences ; that the link between sex and gender has to be denaturalized ; that gender constructs biological sex ; that gender is not the result of biological sex...

I’ve read that genders concern the sexes and thus sexuality ; that there is a dialectical link between gender and sexuality ; that there are gendered sexualities ; that sexuality was pushed out in gender studies...

I’ve read that there were gender relations and couple relations in sexual life...

X. I’ve read that gender is the social sex ; that gender is the social construction of the sexes ; that gender is the knowledge of sexual difference ; that gender is the social construction of a sexual identity that begins with the biological sex ; that gender is the system that organized the hierarchical difference between the sexes ; that gender is the building block of social relations based on the differences perceived between the sexes...

I’ve read that gender has made it possible to go beyond a previously truncated approach of social realities ; that it is impossible to separate gender from social class ; that there are class and gender interests ; that women - and gender - have been introduced into the social realm...

XI. I’ve read that gender is the difference between the socially- and culturally-constructed sexes ; that gender is the cultural character of sexual relations ;

XII. I’ve read that gender is a primary way of signifying power relations ; that gender is at the crossroads of other power relations...

XIII. I’ve read that policies should be based on gender ; that the notion of gender should be integrated in platforms, field projects and internal structures of organizations...

XIV. I’ve read that the word gender was polymorphous ; that the validity of the word gender was questioned ; that gender studies are cut through with debate, controversies, and polemics ; that there are conceptions that are distinct from the notion of gender ; that various explanations of gender like the explicative, central or incidental concept cohabit ; that gender can only be understood in the diversity of its uses ; that the meaning of the word gender is not yet stable and that there are persistent disagreements ; that gender has undergone major changes in its conception...

I’ve read that the barriers of gender, the binarity of gender, the bicategorization of gender, the abstraction of gender, the depoliticization brought about by the use of the word gender, the euphemization of gender, the essentialism of gender, the inflation of the word gender and its routine use, the institutionalization of gender studies, the theatralization of gender, the manipulation of gender, the normativity of gender, the terrorism of gender are criticized ; that the word gender is too academic, asepticized, polite ; that gender was a fiction...

I’ve read that gender is criticized for wending its way into the opposition nature/culture and mixing philosophic and political debate, particularly between equality and difference...

XV. I’ve read that the word gender still cohabits with
 the word ’woman’ : women’s studies, gender studies ; women, gender and societies ; history of women and gender ...
 the word ’feminism’ : feminist studies, gender and sexuality ; feminist studies and research on gender ; the gender of feminism ; gender and feminism...

I’ve read that the feminist perspective has had the effect of reinforcing gender identity from a social point of view ...

XVI. I’ve read that there is always a human gender ; that there are always two human genders, the man’s and the woman’s ; that gender could concern men and women, men or women, masculine or feminine ; that gender, masculine or feminine, is the whole of the attributes a society gives to individuals based on whether they are men or women at birth ; that gender is the process of definition of masculine and feminine in a given society...

I’ve read that there is a new masculine/feminine gender ...

I’ve read that women have become a distinct human gender ...

I’ve read that the masculine gender isn’t neutral ; that the male was the dominant gender, but that some people were wondering if it was a gender in danger or a gender to eliminate, and even if men belonged to the human gender ...

I’ve read that there were couples of the same gender ...

I’ve read that the question of the relationship between virility, femininity and gender was not clear...

XVII. I’ve read that there were gendered relationships, gendered analyses, gendered powers, a gendered mainstreaming, sexual gendered relationships...

XVIII. I’ve read that the construction of gender enabled the invention of heterosexuality...

I’ve read that sexual orientation is a question of gender - but also has nothing to do with gender ; that sex, gender and sexual orientation are linked ; that there are questions, inequalities, and discriminations relative to - or because of, or based on - sexual and/or gender identity ; that gender means conflictual relations between people of different sexual orientation ; that sexual orientation means the choice of the gender of erotic partners ; that lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals questions themselves on their sexual orientation or the identity of their gender ; that no one should be killed for his/her sexual orientation or gender identity...

I’ve read that in a library under the title "Department of the Rights of Man", there is a collection ’sex, gender and sexual orientation’.

I’ve read that lesbians are doubly discriminated against, through their sexuality and their gender ; that they are a tributary of the gender system ; that some lesbians are hostile to the masculine gender ; that there is a lesbian gender category, but also lesbian and homosexual genders...

I’ve read that an equal treatment of discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity was demanded and that it should be based on that fighting racist and anti-Semitic discrimination...

XIX. I’ve read that there were transgender women, transgender men, transgender people, transsexual and transgender people, a transgender community ; that there was a transgender oppression, a transgender liberation ; transgenderism ; that transgenders are living people - with or without an operation - a different gender from that given by society based on their biological sex ; that trans (2) can’t be characterized by their sexual orientation, that the discrimination to which they are subjected is based on their gender identity...

XX. I’ve read that queer theory made it possible to question the relative place of gender from one’s sexual orientation ; that queer theory enables another thinking on sexuality and gender ; that queer theory represented the politics of a new gender ; that queer theory is attracted by transgender ; that queer theory is a vital way of thinking about sex and gender for everyone questioning their identity or faced with heteronormative repression...

XXI. I’ve read that the freedom of expression of gender identity should include the right to gender ambiguity and gender contradiction ; that there were intragender variations...

XXII. I’ve read that gender should be thrown out, made and unmade, deconstructed ; that there was a counter-discourse on gender, troubles in gender ; that there is question of the inversion of gender ; that the question of the deconstruction of all categories (neither ’sex’ nor ’gender’) was posed...

XXIII. And lastly, I thought that it was helpful to bring up the, let’s say, ’ordinary’ (3) use, of this term in the recent press (4) : this type of speech, a suspicious type, a bad type, my favorite type, a new type of career, insults of all types, this type of reading, types of ’guy’ and types of ’girl’, one of a kind, a photo of this type, a stylized photo

I don’t think it necessary to continue this partial inventory.

I wanted to do this little job because I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with the use of this word for a number of years.

Today, I want to say what I was feeling, what I have known for a longtime even without going into the deconstruction and the criticism of this term - and what many people have been thinking without daring to say it - so much has this word pervaded institutions, politics, research for many years - so much so that the word in itself doesn’t mean anything [anymore] ...

My discomfort turned to confirmation : the attempts to make " gender " a concept have failed. gender is not a concept as this term is taken in the minimal meaning of an "intelligible and operating expression in a defined theoretical field".

But more deeply and without it being necessary to share my critical analysis - that is at merely being aware of the extreme confusion that the use of this term leads to, justifies and encourages - it seems to me high time to question :

*the political reasons for the disappearance of other problematics, concepts, and words [’women,’ ’feminism,’ and ’patriarchy’ probably being the most significant] for which progressively but rapidly gender has been efficiently substituted...

* The role and the political function that its introduction played in the area of thought and politics...

How can one not see - without being either an epistemologist or even feminist - the stakes in going from an analysis based on the substitution of the word gender to an analysis based on the acceptance that masculine violence towards women is indissociable from understanding their patriarchal, political and legal codification ?

How can one not see that speaking of gender and violence towards women, women victim of gender violence, domestic and gender violence, violence linked to gender discrimination, gender and violence towards women, gender violence, violence linked to gender, violence based on gender, the gender of violence ... evacuates the question of the sex of the authors of this violence ?

How can one not see that : speaking of feminine gender violence ; considering that violence towards women is a central question of gender studies ; affirming the necessity of reflecting on violence from women’s and gender point of view ; declaring that violence based on gender is synonymous with violence wielded against one or many women ; brings up the question of the sex of violence while making a feminist sexual analysis of this masculine violence against women impossible ? ...

In conclusion, to answer those who respond to this criticism - which is not new and over which I certainly do not have the monopoly - that by using this term they haven’t given up taking into account the patriarchy, masculine domination, power relations between the sexes, and the [criticism of] equality between men and women... in their analyses - which is incontestable - I say that the question should not, in my point of view, be posed in these terms.

I think that the main theoretical and political question is that the use of this term enables analyses that disregard patriarchal relations of domination. Even more, when one recognizes that all relations of domination are built (based) on the evidence of patriarchal domination - which is hardly deniable - then the use of the word gender leads not only to disregard such relations, but also all others.

Consequently, whenever this word gender is legitimized - and regardless of how it is used with other analytical tools - the analysis of the word can thus be conceptually freed from any consideration not only of the patriarchal system but, in addition, from all systems of dominations based on and structured by it.

The word gender can thus be used - and it incontestably is - to justify, legitimize the absence of any relation of domination, any system of domination, any thought of domination, of all domination. And thus of all power. (5)

May 23, 2005

Translated by Sheila Malovany-Chevallier
October 23, 2005


1. A position that I too used at one time : [...] "As for the concept "gender", that is the set of rules societies uses to transform biological conditions of difference into social norms, very forceful in the USA, it is beginning to be used in France : [...]". Marie-Victoire Louis, Recherches sur les femmes, recherches féministes : [...] In : l’Etat des Sciences sociales en France, Edited by Marc Guillaume, Editions la Découverte, 1986, p. 460.
2. Concerning people who, at birth, are of a physiologically ambiguous sex ; whose identity, experience, and feeling do not coincide with the roles and functions historically attributed to men and women ; who want to change sex physiologically through surgery... questions of their malaise, ambivalence, ill ease, and claims are posed and should find solutions. But what is not acceptable - and of course, mistaken - is that these people, in certain texts, significantly, identified with gender - become the theoretical pivot that is the basis on which all sexual relations - and therefore all political relations- are rethought and reconstructed.
3. Here are the definitions from the Littré dictionary : gender 1°) characteristic common to various species ; that which includes several species. Under the gender living being, there are two species, animal and vegetable* High gender, one that has more extension than another. Animal is a higher gender than vertebrate. Highest (supreme ?) gender, one that cannot become a species relative to a higher gender. Living beings is the higher gender in relation to animal and vegetable. 2°) Term of natural history [...] 3°) By extension, in language, gender usually takes the meaning of species, family, order, class. There are various genders of animals and plants * The human gender, all people considered collectively. [...] 4°) Kind, manner. [...] 5°) Type. Taste [...] 6°) Literary and art term [...] 7°) Type of literary composition ; part, subdivision in the fine arts [...] 8°) Rhythmical types [...] 9°) Grammar term. Property of nouns of representing the sexes et in certain languages, the absence of sex. The masculine gender, the feminine gender, the neuter gender, that which belongs neither to the male nor the female. [...] * Common gender, said sometimes of the gender of words that have the same ending for masculine and feminine [...] * Adjective of both genders that has one ending for masculine and feminine. * Figurative. One doesn’t know what gender he is, ifhe’smaleorfemale, said of a secretive man whose feelings one can’t know. 10°) In ordinary language, the nervous type, nerves as a whole, physical sensitivity [...]
4. Translator’s note : the French word "genre" is used for the terms used here : "type," "kind," and "stylized."
5. A further point : That the term "feminism" which carries with it the idea of a fight - is also full of ambiguity, that it might itself be invested, appropriated by the most fierce anti-feminists - and even by those who justify the whole system of prostitution - would not, of course, be an argument that could legitimately invalidate the justification of the criticism of that of "gender". But rather, an invitation to rigorously redefine all the terms employed by feminists and/or those who write in the area and on the subject of, or concerning the multiple institutional, political, and personal relations between men and women.

On Sisyphe, October 23, 2005

Voir en français : Dis-moi, "le genre", c’est quoi ?

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Marie-Victoire Louis, researcher at CNRS

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