#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 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.