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Gender as a Means of Reproduction

Writing the Editor's Introduction for Marilyn Strathern's new book was difficult, but it gave me some new ideas about gender as a means of reproduction. Her 1973 book on gender would have been an instant feminist classic had it been published, but the series it was written for folded, and so its only coming into print 40 years later. Even now the account of gender it gives is highly original -- in part because of how it argues gender recapitulates relationality. From this point of view we can see that Marilyn Strathern has always been concerned with the means of reproduction -- in all its varied forms.

Sarah Franklin, February '16

I first learned about Marilyn Strathern’s unpublished manuscript entitled ‘Men and Women’ in 1993 on the occasion of a visit to her house in Cambridge, where the manuscript was stored in a red box on a shelf in her study. It was already 20 years old, having been written in 1973-4, while Marilyn was in Port Moresby, for a popular anthropology series edited by Jean La Fontaine, which had fallen through. Although we discussed publication possibilities at the time, and on many subsequent occasions, the magic moment did not arrive until much later – indeed another 20 years later, as it turned out. Last Spring Marilyn lent me the manuscript and I read it over the summer becoming increasingly determined to see it somehow into print, and when Emily Martin came to Cambridge last autumn, a plan materialised. Sharing her enthusiasm about the reissuing of her original Morgan Lectures online with Hau Books, in an Open Access format, as part of a digital recovery of anthropological history, an obvious opportunity seemed to present itself. And so it was that an email was sent to Hau, and an immediate reply received, opening the door for a manuscript over four decades old to begin a new virtual career.

What is most unusual about the manuscript is its emphasis on the concept of gender – at the time not a common term of use in most debates about either ‘men and women’ or ‘males and females’. Ann Oakley Sex, Gender and Society (1972) had emphasised the distinction between (biological) sex  and (social) gender that has endured ever since, whilst simultaneously giving way over time to the now dominant use of ‘gender’ to encompass many of the phenomena formerly described under the category of ‘sex’. Judith Butler, whose era-redefining 1990 text Gender Trouble drew heavily on feminist anthropology, famously recast gender as a deed rather than a destiny – thus both anticipating and enabling the extent to which gender has subsequently been undone. In Butler’s version of gender, binary sex is a by-product of both gender norms and compulsory sexual codes.

One of the most remarkable forms of social change since Butler’s bold reprise of Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘one is not born but rather becomes a woman’ has been the energetic challenge to sex binarism. There is no doubt that sex and gender have been radically redefined for the generations born in the wake of Gender Trouble! And no one who heard the thundering four minute ovation for Judith Butler on her recent visit to Cambridge could be in any doubt how much her work is valued for its historic contribution to this transformation.

It is thus fitting that Judith Butler has written an eloquent and admiring Afterword to Marilyn Strathern’s new book, forthcoming this Spring under the title Before and After Gender: sexual mythologies of everyday life. This revised title was chosen precisely because of the difference gender has made to debates about sex, sexism and sexuality. As the Editor of Strathern’s book I was challenged by the task of writing its Introduction given how many directions it might take. An obvious approach, for example, would have been to directly compare Strathern’s analysis of gender to the ones later developed by other theorists, including Butler. This was a tempting route, because no one had offered an account of gender as comprehensive as that set out by Strathern in her remarkable early 1970s book. And indeed no one would do, until much later, in the 1980s.

It was in the 1980s that discomfort with the category ‘woman’ began to become much more widespread – and to become the subject of a concerted feminist attempt to reject the predominant association between gender and sexual difference. This effort took a variety of forms – from feminists such as Audre Lorde who emphasised the inextricability of gender from race, the post-colonial critique of gender from Spivak, Donna Haraway’s 1985 call for an ironic cyborg feminism, or Teresa De Lauretis’s introduction of the model of ‘technologies of gender’.

Writing in 1987, in the first chapter of Technologies of Gender, De Lauretis claimed that:

 In the feminist writings and cultural practices of the 1960s and 1970s, the notion of gender as sexual difference was central to the critique of representation, the rereading of cultural images and narratives, the questioning of theories of subjectivity and textuality.... The notion of gender as sexual difference has grounded and sustained feminist interventions in... the social and physical sciences as well as the human sciences or humanities. Concurrent...with those interventions were ...the creation of social spaces...such as CR groups, women’s caucuses...Women’s Studies, feminist journal or media which sexual difference itself could be affirmed, addressed, analyzed, specified, or verified. But that notion of gender as sexual difference and its derivative notions – women’s culture, mothering, feminine writing, femininity, etc. – have now become a limitation, something of a liability to feminist thought.

She goes on to critique the equation of gender with sexual difference – be it defined in social, biological, discursive, psychoanalytic or semiotic terms. To continue to pose the question of gender this way, she claims, ‘keeps feminist thinking bound to the terms of Western patriarchy itself, contained within the frame of a conceptual opposition that is “always already” inscribed in...dominant cultural discourses and their underlying “master narratives” – be they biological, medical, legal, philosophical, or literary’ (2). Importantly too, De Lauretis emphasises the reproductive quality of this problem, which ‘will tend to reproduce itself...even in feminist rewritings of cultural narratives’ because of the very form in which ‘the question of gender’ is posed.

De Lauretis’s argument anticipates that of Butler in that one of the examples she draws upon is imitation: the extent to which femininity is a mask, a masquerade, a form of imitation or performance, she argues, cannot be accounted for as a ‘sexual’ difference – for such an account would be circular. In order to restore ‘the radical epistemological potential of feminist thought’ it is necessary to reconceive of the social subject and sociality ‘in another way’ as a subject ‘constituted in gender...though not by sexual difference alone’ and thus in terms of ‘relations’.  A subject, De Lauretis continues, who is ‘not unified but rather multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted’ must become the focus of a theory of ‘gender as a technology’ (1987:2).

It is fascinating to imagine what would have happened had Strathern’s early manuscript been published, as anticipated, in 1974 or 5. How differently might Gayle Rubin’s account of ‘the sex/gender system’ been interpreted against the possibility Strathern presents of gender as neither constrained by sexual difference, nor even the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ – but as a tactical relation that is prototypic of sociality itself? The much earlier articulation of a model of gender as a device, a relational mechanism, and a form of forms would undoubtedly have brought a new model of gender as technics and tactics much more prominently into use. Interestingly, imitation is also key to Strathern’s argument, for example in her emphasis on how stereotypes can be used to challenge normative conventions – as ironic, teasing, and subversive mockeries of the very forms they represent.

In some ways Strathern’s model of gender is even more radical than many of the writings in both queer and feminist theory – even after Butler. Her removal of gender from sexual difference is  definitive, while her demonstration of its capacity is global. As I wrote in my Introduction:

Gender relations, Strathern argues, offer a way of thinking through other social categories, while intervening in them too. Gender relations not only ‘stand for’ other kinds of relations – but make explicit fundamental features of relationality itself – including both its lively unpredictability and its intransigent continuities. Strathern goes so far as to suggest that gender is a verb masquerading as a noun in its capacity to ‘provide models of boundaries and relationships’. The concept of gender, she states in her conclusion, ‘itself assures a relationship’. When this symbol becomes an instrument, a means, and a mechanism to recast and contest other relations, the world is its canvas, and gender becomes a means by which ‘society can use the world to talk about itself’.

On May 5th we will hold our fourth ‘Feminist Classics Revisited’ symposium – this year focussing on Nature, Culture and Gender – the influential feminist anthology edited by Strathern and Carole MacCormack and published in 1980. Following our symposium we will be launching Before and After Gender – a book that was written even earlier, and which will amplify the arguments of much feminist writing over the past half century. Remarkably, the radical novelty of Strathern’s early model of gender is such that in many ways it has not aged at all.

In the end I chose a conventional format for the Editor’s Introduction – one that set out to explicate Strathern’s argument on its own terms. I have thus reserved the task of situating her account of gender more comparatively for a future project I can research more carefully. But an initial foray down that path has already given me a useful way of looking back at gender as a means of reproduction, and thus also a new insight into what Strathern has always investigated through a reproductive lens. For if the focus of much of Strathern’s work has been the invisible but structural reproduction of cultural constructs, and conceptual systems, then we might argue that from the beginning she has been a theorist of technologies of reproduction. Like De Lauretis, Strathern argues in her new (old) book that ‘the woman problem’ as an artefact of the very conceptual systems often drawn upon to challenge and interrogate it. This circularity is a key target of her critique in Before and After Gender, and one of her main observations about this circularity is its reproductive telos. The non-reproductive potential of imitation, and its power to express resistance and subversion, have become increasingly visible in the context of queer, trans and LGBT+ politics. For me, the most stunningly brilliant quality of Before and After Gender is how Strathern has built this insight about imitation-as-subversion (as gender) into the very form of her argumentation – using (sometimes by imitating) many different examples of writing about ‘women’ to show what gender is and does (in general).

Being ‘after gender’ continues to have many contradictory meanings -- the ongoing complexity of which are one reason I entitled my Editorial Introduction ‘The Riddle of Gender’. Gender as both a means and a scene of reproduction is one of the most interesting places to explore the different meanings of replication, copying, reproduction, imitation and mimesis. Today gender trouble extends beyond sex to encompass the very idea of ‘biological reproduction’ or ‘biological facts’. It is less unimaginable today than it might have been to Shulamith Firestone, who was only a few years younger than Marilyn Strathern when she was almost simultaneously writing her famous manifesto in New York, that sex binarism could become the target of a global social revolution. If such a prospect had been less unimaginable, she might not have called her book ‘the dialectic of sex’. We will never know what might have happened if a radical rewrite of the gender concept had been published in 1975. But we will have a unique opportunity to revisit this question on the 5th of May, and to celebrate the publication of a long overdue feminist classic as well.

Book cover for Marilyn Strathern's Before and After Gender

Written in the early 1970s amidst widespread debate over the causes of gender inequality, Marilyn Strathern’s Before and After Gender was intended as a widely accessible analysis of gender as a powerful cultural code and sex as a defining mythology. But when the series for which it was written… Read More

Written in the early 1970s amidst widespread debate over the causes of gender inequality, Marilyn Strathern’s Before and After Gender was intended as a widely accessible analysis of gender as a powerful cultural code and sex as a defining mythology. But when the series for which it was written unexpectedly folded, the manuscript went into storage, where it remained for more than four decades. This book finally brings it to light, giving the long-lost feminist work—accompanied here by an afterword from Judith Butler—an overdue spot in feminist history.
Strathern incisively engages some of the leading feminist thinkers of the time, including Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Oakley, and Kate Millett. Building with characteristic precision toward a bold conclusion in which she argues that we underestimate the materializing grammars of sex and gender at our own peril, she offers a powerful challenge to the intransigent mythologies of sex that still plague contemporary society. The result is a sweeping display of Strathern’s vivid critical thought and an important contribution to feminist studies that has gone unpublished for far too long.

The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies. ReproSoc is part of an expanding concentration of Reproductive Studies at Cambridge and is led by Professor Sarah Franklin.

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