Is Gender Inherently Oppressive? Should we Abolish Gender?

It is common these days, while perhaps at least correctly affirming that “sex” is socially constructed like “gender”, to consider the latter not inherently oppressive because many persyns identify with the concept. There must be something worth saving, the reasoning goes, for it to be considered an important part of many lives.1 The justification is typically one of being inclusive to trans persyns, in contrast to the old and anti-trans feminism which would see gender disappear. I contend that this historical development in feminism betrays a profound ciscentricism. The changing theoretical approach to gender in mainstream feminism with the desire to include trans persyns perfectly mirrors the ciscentric idea that “only trans persyns identify with gender; cis persyns simply are”. The historical oddity of feminism suddenly finding a new approach to gender because of “all those trans persyns identifying with gender”, must face the charge that identification with gender by cis persyns has been going on for centuries as well.

The problems with this view of gender go much deeper. If the goal is to “free” gender from patriarchy without freeing ourselves from gender – if the historical narrative is that gender will not wither away through the very same transformation of society that withers away patriarchy – then gender must be thought of as something permanent and inevitable. For example, if one thought that gender isn’t going to disappear with patriarchy, but then talked about class society causing gender, one would implicate oppression in gender on a really fundamental level and contradict the initial premise that it doesn’t disappear when all oppression is gone. More broadly speaking, to talk about gender having any sociological/historical origin at all means that there has to be a hypothetical end to compliment the beginning, because for a set of social practices to have an identifiable beginning there has to have been a time where they were not practiced. So the only thing left for those who don’t believe gender to be inherently oppressive is to say that gender is an ever-present aspect of the humyn condition: that the reactionaries are right and gender is “humyn nature”.

Quite how this is justified is never clear. One might try to ground the idea of gender in biology, something that could perhaps be hypothetically compatible with materialism, but for the unfortunate fact that there is no neurological difference between the “genders” outside of “the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of gender stereotyping”.2 What tiny difference that does sometimes exist, frequently exaggerated through bad science and patriarchal fantasy, is easily explained through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. What this means is that gender cannot be an inevitable result of a humyn need to express some sort of internal or pre-social “essential biological inclination”. It’s not our gendered brains collectively creating a gendered society – it’s precisely the other way around.

In a gendered society, we have a set of ideas about why certain persyns should be assigned to particular groups, a set of ideas about who each of us are in light of our assigned group, a set of ideas about what these groups are for, and a set of ideas about how society as a whole should be structured in support this social stratification. These ideas support and are supported by a broad set of social practices: from gendered modes of dress and address, to sexual exploitation and violence, and anything else we might identify as a component of gender. Having ruled out magical “female brains” and “male brains”, there is no explanation left for why gender exists and must always exist without regressing into idealism. Dialectical materialism says that social existence breeds social consciousness, which breeds social action, which in turn shapes social existence. The only way to break with the view of gender as a characteristic of a historically specific type of society is to break with the dialectical materialist notion of the cycle of material world → ideas → material world. In other words, to retreat into idealism and say that the cause or origin of gender is something external to social practices.

The aforementioned biological essentialist or idealist implications, unacknowledged consequences of the view that gender isn’t inherently oppressive, are not the only problem. We can also consider the fact that nothing can be gendered without the oppressive presence of gender roles.

If one can provide the correct answer to why and how the concept of “red” or “purple” acquires social meaning, then one can also provide the correct answer to why and how “womyn” or “man” acquires social meaning. There is no metaphysical “red” or “womyn” existing outside of humyn activity. There are material objects which reflect certain so-called “red” wavelengths, material bodies which express so-called “female” physical characteristics, and material styles of clothing which project so-called “female” aesthetics. However, the concepts of color and gender, the meaning attached to these, and the way they are interpreted and regulated, are all social things. As such, we must search for the social activity giving birth to these concepts to actually understand them.

So in the creation of the social meaning of “womyn” or “man”, how different are these practices to the practices of gender roles? Are they not one and the same? The answer should be clear. When the social meaning of “womyn” or “man” is produced and reproduced by social practices in service of notions such as “wimmin are the ones who like pink”, “wimmin should stay in the kitchen”, or “men should be sexually aggressive”, then only an anti-feminist would say that these are not a gender roles, and only the most befuddled failure of a feminist would say that these are not actually constructing the social meaning of “womyn” and “man”. To reiterate, if we’re to keep with dialectical materialism then there’s no such thing as a pre-social “womyn” or “man” out there that exists apart from the product of humyn activity. Gender, as a social construct, must be determined by social activity to possess any meaning–to even exist at all–and this activity we call patriarchal society. When a frilly dress is “womyn”, that’s a gender role; when a particular body part is “womyn”, that’s a gender role. It also holds true in the reverse perspective: when “womyn” is a frilly dress, that’s a gender role; when “womyn” is a particular body part, that’s a gender role. From whichever way one looks at things, and squirm and wriggle as one might, it’s gender roles all the way down.

In summary: the existence of gender relies on gender roles, something feminists have been fighting since before the term was invented. The initial cause of gender can’t be found “biologically”, as there’s simply no neurological basis for it (as even bourgeois science is finally and reluctantly concluding). It can’t be found in heaven upon high, as that’s simply objective idealism. And neither can it be found innately within us, as that’s simply primitive subjective idealism since no one could possibly have an ex-cultural or pre-cultural conception of a social system.

Alternatively, the origin of gender can be found in relations of production.3 It’s an imminent reality today due to class society; it’s fundamentally and irrevocably a hierarchy of oppression, exploitation, and domination. The genesis of gender is in the genesis of oppression and exploitation, and the exodus of gender is in the exodus of oppression and exploitation. Gender is thus an artifact of a particular stage of society, and has not always existed, just as assuredly as oppression and exploitation has not always existed. Through revolution and the fight against class society and patriarchy, gender will wither away as part of the transition to communism. While we can look at hormones or dresses in our current patriarchal society and be haunted by pernicious thoughts of “gender”, in a non-patriarchal society these things will cease to possess any structural meaning. They would become as socially irrelevant as the the color of one’s skin would be to a non-racist society, or the shape of one’s earlobes are to present society.

Lest gender abolition be mistaken for an automatically anti-trans line, let me clarify that a world without gender is a world without cis persyns to oppress trans persyns, and trans persyns to be oppressed by cis persyns in turn. It’s a world where no one is assigned gender – not before birth, not at birth, nor during everyday life. The whole thing comes tumbling down, and we are free to live, free. Much of the trans discourse is focused around the harm of gender assignment, gender roles, and body norms, but the logical conclusion of these objections are nowhere to be found. There will be no gender to ‘cis-gender’, no gender to ‘trans-gender’, and thus the oppression of trans persyns by cis persyns will be definitionally impossible. There will be no gendered body to blaspheme in the eyes of the patriarchal divinity, for changing it will be as inconsequential as dying one’s hair; no way to apostatize from ‘correct’ gender identification, for there isn’t gender as a thing which might be identified with; and no sinning to be done through the violation of sacred gender norms, for there simply cannot be if there is no gender in the first place.

At the most basic political level, to naturalize the existence of gender4 is to rip the emancipatory potential from feminism. Arguments that race or class could possibly have any existence outside of oppression are instantly rebuked by the communist left, but gender is apparently the exception. If we’re not to destroy the social group “man/male”, and gender as a whole, then patriarchy has won and we cannot do anything but resign ourselves to a “neocolonial” type of “equality” between constructs inseparable from the very thing we say we’re struggling against: oppression and exploitation. That’s not a kind of world worth fighting for. Alternatively, the automatic impossibility of patriarchy in a world without gender should make even those feminists skeptical of gender abolition pause for thought.

So, what is your line? As an example, let us consider the varying definitions of “man”:

First, there’s the blatantly patriarchal position: “men are strong bearded lumberjacks; men have a penis because ‘man’ and ‘male’ are the same thing; gender is not inherently oppressive”. This deserves no consideration, and can be axiomatically discarded.

Secondly, there’s the “cis radical feminist” position: “men are the sex-class male, and this group exerts structural domination over the sex-class female by creating the gender groups ‘wimmin’ and ‘men’; men have a penis because only males are made men by society; gender is inherently oppressive”. This can be discarded for the naturalization of the category of “sex”, and the failure to explain the trans experience. As MacKinnon said, “Male dominant society has defined women as a discrete biological group forever. If this was going to produce liberation, we’d be free”.5

Thirdly, there’s the “liberal feminist” position: “men are those who express a ‘man’ identity; men have some divergence in anatomy, and do not have a penis by definition; gender is not inherently oppressive”. This can be discarded for the naturalization of the category of “identity”,6 and the positioning of gender as an ever-present aspect of “humyn nature”.

And finally, there’s the dialectical materialist position: “men are the group of persyns positioned as ‘men’ by society, and this group exerts structural domination over those positioned as ‘non-men’ by society; men have some divergence in anatomy, and do not have a penis by definition; gender is inherently oppressive”.

To be clear, this does not mean that we must consider anatomy, “sex”, to be utterly irrelevant (it certainly isn’t to patriarchy). The point this makes is that by saying “men are those who are positioned as ‘men’” instead of “men are those who are ‘male’” we are confronting this social relation head-on, instead of substituting anatomy (as one possible social determinate of many) for the actual end-result of being positioned as a man (which is all that ultimately matters). According to this, trans wimmin are wimmin because they are placed into a subordinate relation to sexuality by patriarchy – they are placed just as cis wimmin are through rape and sexual assault and objectification and abuse and pornification and prostitution. If gender ultimately does not exist outside of oppression, then to feminism “womyn” just a matter of politics: who’s subordinated to patriarchy in actual practice?

Let’s not sacrifice feminism on the altar of biology or identity anymore, and let’s get things straight about what gender is and where it’s going.

Let’s put revolution back in feminism.

  1. “[G]ender can be very important to us, and some people really love the gender that they have claimed for themselves. If gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people. And others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood.” – Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate interviews Judith Butler

  2. Men and women do not have different brains, claims neuroscientist; See also: Meta-analysis of 76 published papers shows no difference in hippocampal size between men and women and “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine.

  3. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

  4. To clarify a potential misreading: dominant society naturalizes the form of gender – “wimmin naturally like dolls”. Dominant feminism naturalizes the mere existence of gender – “gender is inevitable, regardless of form”.

  5. Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The TransAdvocate interviews Catharine A. MacKinnon

  6. Another article of mine talks about this more: The Eroticisation of Gender