#FTF: Haslanger, social constructivism, and unpacking gender abolition

It’s Feminist Theory Friday at the Current and I’m your host for the summer, Jess addicted-to-controversy Martin. I had originally planned to cover a provocative piece on identity politics this week but in light of recent smear campaigns on the interwebs, I’ve decided to save that for later in the summer and cover something almost equally triggering: Sally Haslanger’s analysis on the social construction of gender.

I can thank one of Ravishly’s feature writers, Noah Berlatsky, for reminding me of Haslanger’s work with his piece describing a genderless dystopia. “Genderlessness,” Berlatsky argues, “seeks to utterly abolish femininity rather than just [denigrate] it. The new boss is same as the old boss, only moreso.” In Berlatsky’s portrayal of a genderless world, all our current Western symbols of femininity are outlawed: no more impractical footwear, no more pink, no more Harlequin novels.

Had I read Berlatsky’s article on gender abolition 10 years ago, when my concerns were more centered around subverting a mountain range of teenage acne than subverting patriarchal norms, it would have sent me running for the hills in a pair of tastefully ironic hipster heels. To borrow his words, however, “the problem here is a conceptual error.” Berlatsky relies on a poststructuralist definition of gender to discourage gender abolition and discredit the feminists who espouse this position.

Theorists that examine gender through a poststructuralist lens define it as a series of performances (like wearing high heels or reading romance literature for example) that express a fragmented and fluid identity. Gender abolitionists, conversely, are more likely to define gender according to the “social constructivist” position as outlined by feminist theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger. Let’s unpack that term using the work of Haslanger.

In Gender and Social Construction: Who? What? When? Where? How?, Haslanger argues that gender is socially constructed. While she notes that some feminists (Judith Butler’s work comes to mind) believe that there exists “no reality independent of our practices or our language,” she asserts that there is a real world, a material reality, and that women are confronted with it in the form of constraint. She quotes MacKinnon to expand upon her point:

Epistemologically speaking, women know the male world is out there because it hits them in the face. No matter how they think about it, try to think it out of existence or into a different shape, it remains independently real, keeps forcing them into certain molds. No matter what they think or do, they cannot get out of it. It has all the indeterminacy of a bridge abutment hit at sixty miles per hour.

Haslanger then defines social construction as “an intended or unintended product of a social practice,” something which “[depends] for [its] existence on a complex social context.” For example, one cannot be a high school teacher without first being validated by an accredited university, hired by a board of educational business-people, and then put in an authority position over a teenaged student (example mine). In this relational way, the role of “high school teacher” is socially constructed while still material. Haslanger continues by highlighting three separate prongs of social construction: idea construction, object construction, and hierarchy construction.

Idea construction describes the process by which concepts are formed in cultural, historical, and social contexts. Haslanger uses the concept of two (and only two) sexes (in Western and European cultures) to illustrate her claim. She points out that while — as Ann Fausto-Sterling reminds us — as many as four per cent of babies are born intersexed, the “dominant conceptual framework” subverts any knowledge of sex beyond or in between male and female. Because the concept of two sexes was/is formed in a context where sex characteristics were/are used to ascribe or remove power, the concept of sex binary is socially constructed. Similarly, what is “feminine,” as a concept, is socially constructed. My grandmother, for example, (a woman who was born before Canadian women had the right to vote) finds the concept of “feminine tattoos” quite paradoxical. I, on the other hand, cannot find a better term to describe what I’d like put on my forearm.

The construction of objects, which she defines as “anything that is not an idea” is not so easily explained. People, she argues, are “the individuals [they] are today as a result of what has been attributed (and self-attributed) to [them].” Using herself as an example, she asserts that being categorized female from birth has influenced how she is perceived by others and, thus, is an aspect of her social construction. She calls this process gendering.

Lastly, she argues that gendering is complete when we place classes of people in a power hierarchy according to the characteristics that society has ascribed to them based on material characteristics (including but not limited to sex). This, for lack of a better term, is hierarchy construction (my term). This relationship between sex characteristics, ascribed characteristics/roles, and power hierarchy is how many gender abolitionists define the concept of gender. In this way, Haslanger suggests that females are disadvantaged by all three prongs of social construction: idea, object, and hierarchy.

Berlatsky supports the proliferation of genders and gender expressions. However, if he were to describe his ideal world where “you’d notice if someone was male or female or both or neither, but it wouldn’t be defining, and wouldn’t carry with it a weight of expectations, anger, censure, and potential violence,” social constructivist feminists would think he’s describing the elimination of gender.

Before someone sets me a-blaze in the Twittersphere, I should point out that I am not here arguing for the merit of this theory both because it goes beyond the scope of this review and because I reserve the right to suspend judgement (in that “better judgement” sense of the term) until I feel properly informed. It is not an exhaustive theory nor an inclusive theory and Haslanger identifies that it is an inadequate tool in which to explore transgenderism. However, it is a theory that is worth articulating correctly. Before readers declare themselves draft dodgers of Berlatsky’s imaginary androgynous army, I would recommend a further exploration into the differences between poststructuralist and social constructivist concepts of gender.

Jess Martin
Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.

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  • I’ve never read any non-feminist (and if anyone dares to call Berlatsky a feminist to my face, I will laugh at you) address gender abolition and get it even remotely right. They’re unable to confront it. Gender is an ingrained social construct and people are unable to confront that fact any more than they can confront race, class, religion, marriage, nationalism, and so on and so forth.

  • There isn’t much motivation for the idea that gender exists at all. Sex roles and norms exist, but why think that a person becomes a member of a kind called ‘gender’ in virtue of participating in the roles or conforming to the norms? There are norms imposed upon everyone who is a member of society, and then there are more specific norms that people are subjected to based on their age, their occupation, their location, etc. Should we think that there are human kinds that stand in relation to age, etc. as gender stands in relation to sex, and of which people are members by conformity to the norms imposed on them because of their age, etc.? I see no reason why we should, and so far we haven’t been doing so. So why make an exception for norms imposed on people because of their sex?

    There is no explanatory advantage in having an entity as ‘gender’ in one’s ontology, and no other kind of advantage either. I say we stop talking in terms of it and just describe the consequences of being male or female, or appearing as such, or having certain personality traits that are stereotypically associated with male or female, as needed.

  • This sort of writing is not my thing. It’s not that I disagree with Haslanger, but I think that at it’s core gender is a very simple thing.

    1. There are variations in human genitals and reproductive systems which cause they to be grouped into one of three categories, male, female or intersex.

    I don’t think this grouping is inherently wrong, since it is important for understanding human reproduction. I think the percentage of people who are truly intersex is probably not as high as 4%. I have seen liberals label anyone who does not conform to what I regard as prettiness norms (e.g. females with leg hair, facial hair or other “secondary sex characteristics”, as they call them, associated with males) as intersex. Nonetheless, intersex people do exist and I okay with making that an official “sex” category.

    2. Society expects people born biologically female to behave differently from people born biologically male. The processes by which babies are conditioned to behave in accordance with these expectations are termed “gender indoctrination” (by me, because I feel this is a term that adequately explains what we already know occurs and not because I want to score points for coming up with a new word).

    Since society is not sure what to expect from intersex people their genitals are often altered to fit into either the biological male or biological female categories. Thus the existance of gender the brutal mistreatment of intersex infants.

    I do not believe that personalities are fixed by genetics (nor do I believe in a mystic “true self”), thus I recognise that these process shape the ACTUAL personalities, attitudes and desires of children/babies and not just “who they think they should be”. To put it another way, liberals think gender indoctrination puts pressure on people who already have a “true self” and thus feel bad when they not allowed to express it. While I recognise that this does occur, I also recognise that intense gender indoctrination at a certain stage of a child’s developement could cause them to develop harmful personality traits deemed “masculine” (e.g. aggression, violence, dominance, selfishness, etc.) or “feminine” (e.g. submissiveness, excessive quietness/gentleness, an obsession with being pretty, etc.)

    3. Once masculine and feminine personality traits have been adopted, hierarchy already exists. All other things being equal (e.g. race and class) people indoctrinated into masculinity will tend to exercise dominance over others, especially people indoctrinated into femininity.

    This is where I perhaps disgree slightly with Haslanger, though maybe it is just a matter of phrasing. In response to the statement “[Haslanger] argues that gendering is complete when we place classes of people in a power hierarchy according to the characteristics that society has ascribed to them based on material characteristics” I would say that once children have taken on masculine and feminine characteristics, the hierarchy is already in place. There is no need for society to “place” males and females in a hierarchy or rather, gender indoctrination IS the process through which males and females are placed in a hierarchy.

    Perhaps this is a minor point, but I think we should be clear in our rejection of the liberal view that “femininity” is devalued and assigned to a lower status by “patriarchy” (as they understand it.) This view reinforces femininity by implicitly equating it with being a woman. Radical feminists aim to break the link between womanhood and femininity, but not the link between femininity and subordination, for the latter two are inseperable. Feminism fights for the rights of females, not for “femininity” which is not even a living thing (let alone a person.)

    • Derrington

      Your explanation does it for me. Ive been beaten, stolen from and insulted for being female from being a toddler, family were my first abusers. Imagine growing up as a person of colour in a family that regard you as a n”gger in their eyes. I use the word to replicate the contempt that women were treated with in mine and alot of families. This is so much deeper than whether one wants to wear a pair of fucking heels or not.

      • “I’ve been beaten, stolen from and insulted for being female from being a toddler, family were my first abusers.”

        I was actually thinking of gender indoctrinating behaviours that are generally regarded as abusive, such as holding a female baby tightly because you think it is the most fragile thing ever (thereby preventing it from exploring the world) or calling a girl “princess” or “pretty”. Anyone who understands that conforming to prettiness standards gets harder as one gets older and that women (and girls!) suffer a great deal as a result of the (internalised) belief that they must be pretty at all costs should understand that “pretty”, “beautiful”, “princess”, etc. are among the worst things you can call a girl (in terms of their influence on her self esteem.) Call a girl those things and you are most likely setting them up for a lifetime of self-hatred (when they innevitably fail to be 100% pretty.)

        Of course if you don’t call your girl child pretty and other parents do, the child will wonder why and then they will feel bad about themselves. Parents are in a double bind here. The solution is for the entire culture to stop focusing on the prettiness (or lack thereof) of females. I would like to live in a world where calling a child “beautiful princess” was just as unacceptable as calling her a “nigger”. People might accuse me of trivialising racism, but I don’t feel I am. If they looked into the consequences of our culture’s obsession with prettiness, they would understand that I was not trivialising anything. And that’s is just one harmful aspect of mainstream, supposedly “non-abusive” gender indoctrination.

        Of course, abuse is also a way of indoctrinating children into femininity, since it encourages them to take on the behaviours culturally associated with women (e.g. passivity, submission, etc.) and it is targeted at people who are born female (regardless of any inner gender feelings they may or may not have), so it also fits my understanding of sex and gender better than the liberal view. The more a hypothesis can explain, the more likely it is to be accurate. I just don’t think less blatantly abusive forms of gender indoctration should be ignored. I know that parents who shove femininity down girls’ throats don’t mean to be abuse and are not bad people, but that does not change the fact that feminine indoctrination is not harmful.

        • “I was actually thinking of gender indoctrinating behaviours that are generally regarded as abusive, such as holding a female baby tightly because you think it is the most fragile thing ever…”

          I meant to say “behaviours that are not generally regarded as abusive” Apologies for any confusion. Long live gender abolitionism!

    • I agree with the rest of what you say, but there is a lot of support for a genetic component to personality. Yes, I’ve read Cordelia Fine, and what I remember her saying (don’t have it in front of me) is that yes, we know there are innate sex differences (or maybe I should say sex differences at birth, since the intra-uterine environment also shapes the brain) in terms of personality and behaviour, but it’s very hard to figure out what they are, because of (a) sometimes poor research, and (b) the way nature and nurture are so entangled. Babies are shaped by their environments, but they also actively work to shape their environments to fit them.

      Extraversion/introversion is well established as having a genetic component, for example (only minor sex differences here as far as I know), though it is also shaped by environment, and age iirc.

      And violent behaviour being predominantly male is a human universal. In other primates I’ve read about, testosterone seems to shape aggression in both sexes.

      There are also parenting instincts and other instincts that are shaped by the environment, but not created by them. We have an instinct of one sort or another -> we look to our community to see how to act it out (or not). (John Bowlby talked about this for parenting.)

      Anyway, I think aggression is naturally stronger in some people than others, just like extraversion is, but it’s heavily heavily heavily shaped by the environment.

      I don’t think gendered behaviour is going anywhere. I think most people actually like gender norms, but would prefer them without the sexism/human rights issues.


      On another note, I asked about the trans controversy a while ago, and now know something about what it is about. I told one trans woman who insisted there are NO differences between women and trans women that if all I have to do to be a TERF is disagree with that, then I’m proud to be a TERF. He didn’t get my meaning. Anyway, I guess I’m a TERF.

      • C.K. Egbert

        You seem to be confusing personality traits with gender. Gender is a system by which certain behaviors, clothes, toys, jobs, etc. are marked as “feminine” or “masculine,” and in which children are forcibly indoctrinated and shaped by those expectations.

        Gender is better thought of as our (for girls, violent and abusive) socialization rather than our “personality traits”. The ideology of patriarchy is that the behaviors that are socialized are inherent or natural (which is absurd, because if they were natural there would be no reason to socialize or gender-mark anything).

        In any case, even if there are sex-based personality traits there still would be no gender if we didn’t attempt to gender-mark (toys, professions, etc.) and socialize people differently based upon their sex. Sex based traits would have no social relevance for the individual (e.g., we would not presume that an individual has any particular personality trait on the basis of their sex–and in fact we wouldn’t mark people by sex the ways that we do now through clothing, behaviors, etc.).

        • “You seem to be confusing personality traits with gender. Gender is a system by which certain behaviors, clothes, toys, jobs, etc. are marked as “feminine” or “masculine,” and in which children are forcibly indoctrinated and shaped by those expectations.”

          Actually I was the one who brought up personality traits. I have no problem with the idea that personality traits are a subset of gender. In fact I would argue that the main harm caused by the other aspects of gender (clothes, toys, etc.) is that it they cause people to take on harmful personality traits (e.g. aggression, dominance, superficiality, etc.) which then lead to harmful behaviours (rape, domestic violence, dangerous beauty practices, etc.)

          I think it is important to point out that women are harmed by their conformity to gender (not just by gender indoctrination.) Even if women were born submissive and prettiness obsessed, it would still be a bad thing for them to have those traits because it would result in women being dominated. I don’t think anybody should be dominated, willingly or otherwise.

          I was not trying to argue for a strictly social explanation of human behaviour. I think there are some cases where liberal feminists employ an excessively social constructivist viewpoint They argue that biological sex categories are socially constructed, that “reality is a social construct” (as one particularly infuriating liberal academic said) or that disgust towards sex acts involving violence or exposure to faeces, urine, vomit, etc is a product of a “sex-negative” society.

          Biological and social forces work together to shape personality. The point I wanted to make is that social forces do have an effect on personality. Personality is not FIXED (that was actually the work I used) by genetics.

          For example, studies show that if two people are equally aggressive by default and one of them is exposed to a high amount of a violent media and the other is exposed to a low amount of violent media, the former is likely to become a more violent person. They won’t just feel “pressured” to be violent or feel as though their “true self” is not being respected. They will actually become a more aggressive person as a result of their exposure to violent media. The “pressure” may in fact be part of it though, since actions shape personality. You beat up somebody once to prove that you are a “real man” (in response to social pressure) and it becomes easier to beat someone up again (due to desensitisation and changes in self-perception.)

          We know it is possible for people who are not naturally violent/aggressive to become more aggressive. The military does this all the time. It turns ordinary people (mostly men) into killers and rapists. Even then they wind up experiencing PTSD, suggesting that it is not truly natural for humans to be violent, but the fact that they manage to kill innocent people in the first place (something most ordinary people, particularly those not indoctrinated into aggression via violent media, aggressive sports, etc.) shows how powerful indoctrination can be.

          “In any case, even if there are sex-based personality traits there still would be no gender if we didn’t attempt to gender-mark (toys, professions, etc.) and socialize people differently based upon their sex.”

          I guess if you had a society were some people were naturally violent and dominating, but nobody associated those characteristics with males that would count as a world without gender. However I feel that part of the purpose of abolishing gender (along with capitalism and other hierarchical systems) is to create a world where there are no such people (or where there are as few dominating, aggressive people as possible.) It is not just about abolishing the links between such traits and being male. Radicals should always make it clear that they are against hierarchical roles (e.g. masculinity and femininity, economic class, etc.) themselves, not just against forcing people into roles they do not wish to be in.

          I am sure C.K. already understands this principle. I just want to make it clear that my approach to gender abolish is distinct from that of liberals (who also sometimes claim that they want to abolish gender.)

        • Most people *would* mark themselves as male or female by the markers available to them in their culture. Some would more than others, but even genderqueer kids go through a phase in middle childhood (a stage of cognitive development) where they adopt exaggerated versions of sex role stereotypes because at that age, they are learning how categories work, and of course in the earliest part of that everything is oversimplified. Later on you get goths, jocks, preppies etc, and as people get more sophisticated, they find what works for them. For some people, that means androgynous markers, because that’s how they end up coding themselves, and they tend to hang out with other people who code themselves the same way. For other people they definitely code themselves male or female, even if they’re in jeans. They seem to want to. Something about group cohesiveness.

          I agree that gender markers can be forced on people and can be quite stifling, but there’s no way I can agree that kids don’t do some of this to themselves voluntarily. It’s a kind of play where they learn about categories in general, and the categories their culture uses. Their understanding of categories gets more sophisticated as they get older, but people never stop using categories. They’re useful, and the issue is how to use them, not how to stop them (you can’t).

          People have *always* marked themselves as members of one category or another, not just sex, but also tribal (including ethnicity, class, age). I’m autistic and not really capable of doing this – people welcome me into their groups, then drop me when they realize I’m not one of them. I’ve always been afraid of being considered a member of a particular group, because of possible backlash when I turn out to be different, so actually try not to have a look that’s currently in fashion.

          Reading: Jean Piaget researched the acquisition of classification skills in childhood (e.g. can you be a child and a girl at the same time? Are there more birds or more ducks?), but didn’t look at things like gender markings. He only wanted to study the logic they were using. Lawrence Kohlberg talked about how children stop being gender-fluid at this age somewhere in his stuff – again, logic, not behaviour. If you’re in Vancouver there’s a lovely book on cognitive development by Mary Wilcox in the downtown branch of the Vancouver Public Library (Wilcox, Mary M. 1979. Developmental journey: A guide to the development of logical and moral reasoning and social perspective. Nashville: Abingdon. (153.4 W66d)) that summarizes cognitive development quite well. There’s bound to be something more recent and accessible, but of course you probably wouldn’t trust it.

          Cordelia Fine even remarks (in part 3 of her book that everyone keeps citing to me as proof I should just shut up already) that it’s actually cruel to try to keep kids gender neutral in middle childhood, because of how much of an imperative it is for them to understand this stuff at that age.

          Pure behaviourism (= everything is environment) has no place in science these days – it just doesn’t work. And unfortunately, feminists who try to make a case for it can sound just as out of touch as trans women who insist that they’re as much women as anyone. I really wish instead of burying or denying the issue, feminists would engage more in talking about the science. I think it would work better.

          I wish I were better at explaining things, but I’m really bad with words, and don’t know how to summarize things so they make sense.

    • Jess

      I should point out (for the sake of not mis-representing Haslanger) that she doesn’t order how these three prongs operate and doesn’t particularly separate the characterisation of females from the hierarchicalization. She could see these things as simultaneous. Hard to know.

  • Also gender role abolition is not about bringing about an end to objects or practices that are currently gendered, such as high heels, unless there is an independent reason to do so (e.g. the practice being dangerous or unhealthy). It’s about ending the roles and norms, so people are free to express themselves without the confines of gender norms. It’s not things gendered as ‘feminine’ that we’re against, but the gendering of those things as feminine.

    • To be fair I am against most things labelled “feminine”, including high heel shoes, elaborate, uncomfortable or sexualised clothing, beauty practices, dolls that exist to be prettified, gentleness in response to brutal violence (or worse, eager submission to brutal violence), devoting one’s entire life to producing and raising babies, etc.

      I guess if one’s definition of “feminine” things is so broad that not beating someone up for no reason is considered “feminine”, then I am not against all “feminine” things, but that is not what most people think of when they think of femininity. Let me put it this way, the more strongly something is associated with femininity (or masculinity) the more likely I am to oppose it.

      Sadly everything nowadays is being given a gendered category. Lego is now supposedly “for boys” when in the 1950s it was considered gender neutral (Anita Sarkeesian made a couple of great videos about this and the new “for girls” Lego.) Same thing with bouncy balls. When I was a kid I thought of them as gender neutral, but now I hear about them being used to test whether male apes have an innate preference for “masculine” toys. Bouncy balls, trains and bricks do not promote aggression and dominance, yet are being labelled as “masculine” (or “for boys”).

      It seems like companies want to abolish the whole idea that there is such a thing as a gender neutral toy and thus seriously constrain the imaginations of young girls. Boys can pick from a far greater variety of toys, though once again there are “boy toys” which I don’t view as appropriate for anybody (e.g. toy guns, military vehicles, police cars or any other toys that glamourise violence, particularly state violence.)

    • Jess

      Yes, I agree. My intention was to refute Berlatsky’s assertion that in a genderless world, all “gendered performance” (for lack of a less po-mo term) would be eliminated. Hopefully that was clear.

  • NYSB

    So excited for this series! I am very interested in learning more about feminist theory and this sounds like I’ll be able to get a good overview that will help me determine where I need to dig in with my own research. Thank you!

  • Fercryinoutloud. People are still worrying that “You can’t tell the boys from the gals”? Berlatsky just uses longer words. What a loser.

    The thing I really don’t get about these worriers over the “natural” order of things is why they have so little faith in nature.

    I mean, they don’t worry about their legs disappearing if they don’t wear the right sort of attitude, do they? If gender is innate, like the development of legs, then it’s just going to be there. They don’t have to do a thing.

    So, if they really believe their stories, why are they worried?

    • C.K. Egbert

      I’m sure whether you are addressing Berlatsky or Haslanger? I think Haslanger’s point is that our biology is interpreted through the lens of a hierarchical gender system. So we feel compelled to categorize people that don’t fit neatly into our gendered/sexed boxes, and we force them into those boxes through violent means.

      For example, the practice of surgeries to make women’s bodies fit the patriarchal idea of what they are “supposed” to look like and what they are “supposed” to do (e.g., intercourse and reproduction). This can be anything from labioplasty to cliterodectomies to vaginoplasty.

  • Rocio

    Thanks for this. In my Cultural Studies theory classes while we did study a bit of postructuralism, when we talked about gender we overwhelmingly used a social constructionist lens.

    (And poststructuralism was really originally just supposed to explain how despite overwhelming structural forces, people occasionally manage to resist and do something else. It kind of branched out from Cultural Marxists to complement Marxist ideas of determinism. From what I understand many thought sociology for example got to the point where people thought it was too determinist but people reacting to it swung exactly in the opposite way and liberals have run with it to the opposite extreme of “agency is everything”!

  • Laur

    Thank you for this post, Jess. I am very much looking forward to reading more from you.

    “Epistemologically speaking, women know the male world is out there because it hits them in the face. No matter how they think about it, try to think it out of existence or into a different shape, it remains independently real, keeps forcing them into certain molds. No matter what they think or do, they cannot get out of it. It has all the indeterminacy of a bridge abutment hit at sixty miles per hour.”

    this quote really speaks to me. At some points over the past decade plus, I have grown weary of feminism and tried to tried to take up a more diverse range of interests. And yet, inevitably, I male power confronts me wherever I go. I can’t stop thinking about women’s situation, or rather *knowing* it, even when I want to.

    Anyway, that’s really an aside. So many thought-provoking comments, too! Wonderful!

  • I like to think of masculinity and femininity as core components of the domination/submission model. Femininity encompasses all the features that are constituents of submission like, weakness, emotionality, lack of freedom in both clothing and mannerisms, a tendency to fold under pressure etc. And masculinity encompasses all the constituents of domination like strength, lack of feeling like empathy, more freedom in clothing and mannerisms, a tendency to say no and general tenacity. From this model other types of oppression can be easier to carry out and set up like racial prejudice and homophobia etc. This is demonstrated in genocides where the conquered land is ‘feminised’ and in ownership, where material objects and women are one and the same. In my view, if masculinity and femininity are abolished, then it will be easier to erase other forms of oppression as well.