Mariana Szapuová, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia
The central problem of the paper is the category of gender, its epistemological and methodological role in feminist theorizing and research particularly within conditions of transforming countries where these fields of study are only now beginning to develop. Concerning the recently emerged gender- skepticism various arguments, pro and against the category of gender as a tool of analysis are explored.
It is stressed that on the level of analysis gender not only remains relevant and topical, it also continues to evoke new questions as the following: how is it possible to built a theory without a certain degree of "universalization"? Does the category of gender inevitably lead to homogenization and thus to simplification? If we reject the category of gender, are we not getting rid of a critical tool of analysis of an already existing cognition?.
While trying to answer these questions it seems to be important to differentiate between the level in which this category operates as a tool of critical exploration of an existing cognition and the level in which it functions as a tool for building new knowledge/understanding. In the conditions of the lack of feminist conciousness and feminist theory the role of gender is especially important, but its functionality must be always viewed within the context in which it is used as well as within the framework of intentions and goals of concrete research programs. It should be seen as a category depicting certain resemblances which enables us to avoid the sweeping generalizations because these resemblances are not stable. Quite the opposite, they are viable to change and allow various degrees (similarity in one sense does not have to mean a similarity in all other senses, it can change in time or degree).
In comparison with the Western, especially the English-speaking countries, where the concept of gender has played an important role in the feminist theory since the beginning of the 70s, in my country and language the term “gender” was used almost exclusively (until recently) as a grammatical category to refer to certain words, nouns and personal pronouns as masculine or feminine. After the political changes, when feminist theorizing was introduced to the intellectual and cultural spheres, the meaning of the word ”gender” began to change and extend. It is important to note, however, that this process is neither fast nor striking. For most people, the word ”gender” is still mainly a grammatical category and all human beings are characterized by their ”biologically given” sex.
One of the most serious problems following the introduction of feminist thinking in my country was the difficulty of finding the adequate methods and conceptual tools for explaining the meaning and role of gender issues at the academic level as well as in the wider cultural context. Because of the lack of feminist tradition and different social, historical, political and cultural conditions, at the academic level feminists have at first explored the conceptual and methodological apparatus which has been developed within the Western feminist thought. As one of the most important conceptual tools for articulating women’s issues has been the category of gender, which was at a certain point a basic and perhaps most important element of, especially Anglo-American, feminist theoretical arsenal. It functioned as a conceptual tool for grasping and articulating of the most fundamental question of feminist thinking since the times of Simone de Beauvoir: what is a woman, what it means for a human being to be a woman. So, it seemed to me that to understand and explain the goals and role of feminist theory one must consider its basic category, the category of gender. But paradoxically enough, it has been shown as a not very easy task – within the courrent feminist discourse, at least during the last decade, there are connected with this category various discussions , disagreements among theorists, even controversies. My aim in this paper is to outline the way how I see the problems with gender and to elaborate the way of understanding it which is, or can be useful, as I hope, for feminist theory and research in my country. Because of the interconnectedness of sex/gender distinction with the epistemological role of the category of gender I would like to briefly outline the basic philosophical and theoretical framework within which they have been operating..
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The distinction between sex and gender developed within feminist theory was originally directed against the dominant traditional understanding of the differences between women and men as "natural" phenomena connected with the biological distinction between "the sexes". As Linda Nicholson pointed out, "feminists came to view differences between women and men as having two dimensions:1. the biological and 2. the social, with "sex" referring to the former and "gender" to the latter" (Nicholson, 1998, p.289)
The concept of gender as a social, cultural, historical and political category in the historical-theoretical context of feminist philosophy was highlighted in the 1970s. Most theories and arguments have been based on the conceptual distinction between biological sex and social gender. Many feminist arguments, based on this distinction and showing that, generally speaking, the different position of women and men in the network of social and power relations is not a result of their biological, anatomical differences, it cannot be deduced from or excused by them, are now so well known as to require little comment. Shortly speaking, "gender" began to function as an effective theoretical tool which provided the means to describe and explore a number of socio-cultural mechanisms and instruments of production of ”woman” or ”femininity”. Moreover, this distinction was also seen as a conceptual tool for overcoming the so-called biological foundationalism or biological determinism (Nichcolson 1998, p.291, Kiczková 1997, p.167) as well as for shifting the attention and emphasis to the socially and culturally constructed differences.
The separation of sex and gender established a basic theoretical framework which has been frequently used to acquire new knowledge, to unmask some hidden forms of asymmetric relationships or to raise new questions about the social relations between women and men.
A number of theorists mainly in English-speaking countries have considered the sex/gender distinction to be an important turn which occurred in feminist thinking. Beginning with the initial stress on legal, economical and social discrimination of women at the end of the 70s, the Anglo-American feminist thinking moved to the analysis of the influence of " of the gender organization of human life on Western culture - on the literary, scientific and philosophical canon that we call 'the Western intellectual tradition' ". (Bordo 1988, p. 619). The analyses of gendered character of many aspects of human history, knowledge and individual or collective human experience have revealed some types of cultural norms for masculinity and femininity occurring in different spheres of human experience of the world. " They cleared the space, described a new territory which radically altered the male normative terms of discussion about reality and experience." (Bordo 1990, p.137).
"Gender", as many feminist philosophers thought, could serve as a good basis for argumentation against one - biological, sexual - difference, which has traditionally been regarded as essential, and at the same time lead to highlighting of another - social, cultural, political and power-based - difference. Since "gender" has been functioned as a conceptual tool for grasping of the socially constructed - in modern societies also power-based and power-regulated - expectations and cultural symbols serving for reproduction of "feminine" and "masculine" characteristics, stereotypes and division of labor, the category of gender has been used to express the social, cultural and political differences. The above mentioned expectations and symbols show what it means to be a woman or man on the empirical, normative and, what is of great importance, also on symbolical level.
For a more adequate understanding of the meaning of this distinction in the feminist theory, mainly Anglo-American, it is important to notice that the concepts of sex and gender has been frequently used in two different ways which Heinämaa calls the substantive and the formal use (Heinämaa 1997, p. 30). Originally, this distinction was considered in the mode of reality, which means a differentiation of features and characteristics belonging either to the category of sex or to the category of gender. American feminists usually defined gender by relating to the mental and behavioral features, while sex was mostly defined by pointing at the biological (anatomical, genetic and hormonal) characteristics. Later on, this real definition of gender and sex was replaced by the formal or criterial mode which does not require naming of features belonging to one or the other category, it only provides criteria on the basis of which we can put the individual characteristics to one or the other category. ”'Gender' has came to refer to any differences between women and men - be it mental, behavioral or anatomical - which have their origin in society and culture"(Heinämaa 1996, p. 292). However, in the light of both of these meanings of the sex/gender distinction, the possibility that the bodily differences between the sexes might have their origin in culture or society is ignored (Heinämaa 1996, p.293). Moreover, as several theorists have noted, this kind of thinking implies an assumption according to which the gender difference is, in a way, rooted in nature or caused by nature/sex. This assumption continues "to construe the relations between gender and sex in causal terms. There is, it seems, an underlying 'natural' manifestation of biological differences in social ones." (Lloyd 1989, p. 15). This means that in the light of this distinction it was still possible to create monocausal explanations of the difference. Precisely this point became the one of the focuses of many criticism of sex/gender distinction. To put it briefly, in the late 80s many feminists began to see this conceptual framework as problematic and challenge the usefulness of that distinction (Nicholson 1998, pp.290,291., Heinämaa 1996,pp.293, 296). For many theorists the differentiation between sex and gender hides ambiguity and confusion and often leads to controversial attitudes. Furthermore, as some of them maintained, the category of gender itself is connected with a number of problems and methodological difficulties which made it a controversial term for many theorists. ”Consequently, what became central to feminist debate was less the question of the relationship between ´sex´ and ´gender´ and more the question: does ´gender´ - or the social construction of what it means to be a ´woman´ or ´man´- possess any unitary or ´essential´ element across cultures?”(Nicholson 1998, p. 292).
In the context of this second question the problem of an epistemology of gender arise, e.g. the problem of its epistemological and methodological role in contemporary feminist theorizing and feminist research, particularly within conditions, where these fields of study are only now beginning to develop. Besides other aspects, I see the epistemology of gender as strongly interconnected with the question of essencialism, e.g. with the question whether the category of gender leads inevitably to “falsely universalising” , essentialist theories and explanations. How we can build new theories using gender as an analytic category and at the same time not to homogenize the heterogenity among women and obscure diversity? But before goint to these points, I will at first briefly outline some main lines of criticism of the category of gender, on the basis of which most of the recent discussion or even controversies are led. I will pay attention to some lines of those arguments which consider gender as a problematic concept because of its supposedly essencialist charakcter. Many of these arguments were raised by authors influenced by postmodernism who showed serious doubts about the adequacy of the category of gender as an analytical tool. At this point , I think, it is useful to distinguish between two levels of study of gender: of gender as a category, or as a though construct that helps us to articulate of what means to be a woman or man in particular historical period, society and culture and of gender as a social relation, which is a specific relation of dominance and power (for similar point see Flax1990, p. 45). Speaking of an epistemology of gender I speak about the former level, about the gender as a though construct, as a theoretical/philosophical category. At this level "gender", as I have pointed out earlier, operates as a conceptual tool for grasping and articulating of ”women issues”. In accordance with this assumption I want to focus my attention mainly on the analysis of the question related to the adequacy and productivity of this tool when used for construction of feminist theory and research. I will not follow the questions regarding the social construction of female gender as a social relationship or cultural symbol in detail, even though I am aware that it is not possible to avoid them completely. The ways in which gender is created through an asymmetrical, social division of work and the difference between the sexes - constructing the symbolic contents of masculinity and femininity within the network of historically conditioned cultural and political (power) relations - create a significant field of feminist philosophy or theory in general.
As indicated above, in the feminist philosophical discourse of the last decade one can see a growing skeptical attitude towards gender. Susan Bordo calls it feminist or gender skepticism (see Bordo 1988, Bordo 1990, Bordo 1992), a skepticism "about the use of gender as an analytical category" (Bordo 1990, p. 135). This skepticism does not form a univocal or stable position that could be fully accepted or rejected. It can rather be noted as a certain consonance of warning voices, emerging from various fields of theory and theoretical positions (Bordo 1990, p. 135). These voices say that "gender" - even though possibly effective in revealing of one type of difference (between men and women) - covers and hides another, equally vital distinction, the difference among women. This skepticism reproaches the category of gender, as it is applied in the theory of gender difference, for its being a universal and universalizing concept, for designating a universal "woman" or woman in herself. Susan Strickland has described this situation as following: "Instead of 'Man' we are now presented with a generic 'Woman', a term like the universal 'man' or 'human' that hides or denies differences in situation and experience, privilege and power - its content based not on actual commonalities between people, but on the experiences and interests of some who have the position and ability to impose these terms and define what they mean for themselves and other" (Strickland 1994, p. 265).
Theories which thematized the problem of difference or otherness of women through "gender" were often criticized and blamed for unacceptable generalization, for application of a ”unitary woman” violently homogenizing the diversity and heterogeneity of women. Moreover, as it is maintained, they oppress, silence and exclude those subjects who do not want to - or cannot - adjust to the universalizing definition of the female gender. If any social analysis - including the analysis of women's subordination - concentrates only on one element of a complex of relationships constituting the analyzed phenomenon or situation, it suffers from methodological reductivism and consequently leads to deformed results. In the case of feminist theory, we do not only deal with a deformity in the sense of inadequacy or falseness of theory, we also deal with the fact that the results of such research are politically (from the feminist political practice point of view) incorrect and unacceptable because they are excluding, hegemonizing and oppressing. According to Linda Nicholson, for example, "To try to identify unitary themes in the experiences or perspectives of women may require the suppression of voices different from our own" (Nicholson 1990, p. 6).
The criticism or even rejection of the category of gender were often framed by the debate on the threat of essentialism. This debate has been concentrated on the question, whether the category of gender has any common, universal, ahistorical basis, or, in other words, whether the term “gender” (or “woman”i) has a unified universal meaning. As it is said, every general claim about gender (or any requirement raised in the name of women) is not only theoretically incorrect and misleading but also ideologically unacceptable since such a claim do not pay attention to the differences among women themselves and lead to subordination and marginalization of a particular group of women, who do not want identify themselves with the general, abstract subject of "we women". In this respect, we can find an interesting argumentation of Judith Butler who, while recognizing the political inevitability to express her voice "as a woman" against those who oppress women and deny the existence of their social subordination, also stresses that "there is an internal imperative not to subordinate, erase and colonize the diverse women who are ostensibly represented by the term " (Butler 19922, p. 163).
This imperative is , without doubt, very important and feminist theorists would accept it. But on the other hand , from the theoretical end epistemological point of view we may also ask: how to build a theory, when all theorizing is in some sense generalizing? Jane R. Martin addresses her argument to those, who sees gender as an essentialist category and maintains that for to speak only about diversity, all general terms need to be given up. ”Any naming or categorizing tends to call attention to similarities and to neglect differencies. In other words, the use of any general term…easily can give rise to the very consequence that feminist scholars have attributed to essence talk.” (Martin 1994, p. 636). According to her, to avoid generalizations means to limit feminist research to description of particularities in particular period of time. ”Taken to its logical extreme, the argument against general categories like women, gender…leaves feminist scholars in the lurch” she writes. (Martin 1994, p.637).
So, within the ”essentialist debate” the question of universalizing theories and generalizing, homogenizing concepts was primarily discussed. In this paper I can not summarize all various arguments in detail, be it pro or against the category of gender. It seems to me that this debate culminated at the break of the 80s and the 90s. At this time it may appear that this problem has been solved, resp. overdiscussed. However, I believe that on the epistemological and methodological level it not only remains relevant and topical, it also continues to evoke questions for those, who start with building their theories. As most striking I consider the following: How is it possible to built a theory without a certain degree of universalization or generalization? Does the category of gender inevitably lead to homogenization and thus to simplification? Does it necessarily lead a research in a bad direction? If we reject the category of gender, are we not getting rid of a critical tool of analysis of an already existing cognition? For example, as it is well known, ”gender” has functioned as a tool of critical analysis of our intellectual tradition, especially Western philosophy. How can we understand the gender biased character of our own discipline without certain degree of generaliztation? It seems to me that the question of productivity and adequacy of this category has in such a way concentrated mainly on the following two problems: First, the problem of gender specificity of individual areas of knowledge and prejudices against women that are present in them. As an example to illustrate how the category of gender has worked as a tool of rethinking an area of knowledge I chose my discipline, philosophy, whose traditional concepts is deeply rooted in our language and thinking ( for example the mind/body, nature/culture, subjectivity/objectivity dualisms etc.). While considering this point, maybe it is useful to differentiate between the level in which ”gender”operates as a tool of critical exploration of an existing knowledge and the level in which it functions as a tool for building new knowledge/understanding. I think that in the case of creating new theories using gender we really should be very cautious not to obscure diversity, but for me it should not mean to abandon this category in general in the name of heterogenity and diversity.. The second question is whether "gender" can serve as an appropriate tool for articulating the problem of difference (both between genders and within one gender itself), or, in other words, whether gender skepticism is the only alternative. In what follows, I will concentrate on these two questions only with the aim to show that the above mentioned difficulties with the very concept of gender must not and should not lead us inevitably to resignation .
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Numerous feminist critiques of Western philosophical tradition were based on the category of gender. A spreading belief emerged in feminist theory that the concept of gender can serve as a productive analytical category. If we look at the concept of gender from the point of view of language, we can see it implies that the meaning of certain words such as "reason", "knowledge", "science" as well as "body" or "history", are conditioned by gender, or they hide a gender specific bias (see Tanesini 1994). Most feminist analyses of masculinity present in the history of Western philosophy have been directed against one of the fundamental assumptions of traditional philosophy, against the assumption, according to which philosophy is a product of objective, universal and unhistorical reason, thanks to which the philosophical reflection is able to achieve "god's eye perspective" or to use Thomas Nagel´s phrase, "the view from nowhere". According to this assumption, the question of historical and cultural positioning of reason through its "beholder" is not relevant because it does not touch the correctness and adequacy of particular philosophical theories in any way (Grimshaw 1996, p. 734). Feminist criticism went on to undermine exactly this assumption by arguing that the question of a social - gender, class, racial, religious - localization of the knower (philosopher) are connected with the contents of philosophical concepts and with the meaning of basic philosophical terms. In the light of this criticism, it has become clear that the assumed gender neutrality of the philosophical terms and concepts only covers up their gendered nature and gender specific connotation, i.e. that their meanings is always gender coded. It is in this sense that Susan Bordo talks about the "maleness" of philosophy (Bordo 1988, p. 619).
Feminist philosophers, who based their analysis on gender, have revealed (as they believed) behavior norms, types of cognitive style and moral conduct that were evidently determined by gender. Thus, they have created a new space which provides a certain alternative to the predominant, gender neutral discourse on human experience, a space that also enables application of gender in contemplation on such "exclusive waters of human intellect" as philosophy. These theories also have led the focus of attention to the fact that "the hierarchical oppositions of Western thought have consistently been gender coded" (Bordo, 1988, p. 623), and the way in which the logic of power and exclusion dominates within the scheme of Western rationality. Feminist criticism of traditional knowledge has added a new direction to this investigation and it was the category of gender that enabled thinkers to see the hierarchical oppositions of Western thought as well as the very knowledge/power relations as gender coded.
Feminist philosophers have looked critically also at a number of special science disciplines in which they identified the presence of gender specific norms and presumptions. The application of gender as an analytical tool in feminist epistemology, focused on questions how gender norms influence on the processes of cognition (see Anderson 1995; Webb 1995), have led to a more precise definition of areas in which this influence is active and clearly provable. Elizabeth Anderson has identified four such areas: gender structured division of theoretical labor, (among individual disciplines as well as within one discipline), gender symbolism, (if it is a particular hierarchy in the field of cognition or the contents of individual theories), androcentrism, (of theories or research programs), and finally, a direct and open or indirect, hidden sexism (Anderson 1995, p. 57,58).
Gender skepticism, as sketched above, is often connected with the postmodern orientation of some feminists, emphasizing the heterogeneity among women and pointing out the - in their view - illegitimate of sweeping generalizations based only on a partial experience of a particular group of women who, in this way, homogenize heterogeneity. Of course, ”generalization can obscure, homogenize and exclude, but they can also reveal and illuminate, and an overemphasis on heterogenity can itself obscure the validity and possible utility of such categories for social critique” (Fisher 1992, p.175). Susan Bordo, even though being aware that a certain degree of skepticism may help to correct some simplifications, also warns against extreme skepticism and willingness to give up the category of gender completely. She warns against this because of practical-political as well as theoretical reasons.
On epistemological level this category can function as a prism showing numerous social and cultural phenomena in a different light and thus enabling us to articulate them in a different ways. Feminist social analyses should not abandon this category if they want to keep the ”women’s point of view”. I would like to show this on the phenomenon of the violence against women. It is important to point out that in my country relevant research regarding this phenomenon has only now started to develop. First attempts to reflect on this problem were made mostly from the psychological perspective. This perspective by itself, however, is not sufficient because it leads to the conclusion that the core of this problem is sought exclusively on the individual level. Only the ”prism” of gender enables us to see this problem from a wider, social perspective as a problem connected with the gender hierarchy and imbalance of power.
It could be also stressed that the category of gender does not function only as a tool of theoretical analysis of various fields of knowledge, but it also helps to create and theoretically justify the strategies of practical politics. It operates as a tool for creation of practical political strategies focused on the change of those social conditions which serve to close women into their sex. Thus, if "femininity" is connected with gender and gender is something under creation, changeable and flexible, if it is a result of the social, cultural and political influence, i.e. a social construct, then it is obvious that we can no longer refer to the ”women´s nature”, to women's natural place which is still common in my country.
It seems to me that contemplating "gender" as a category depicting such resemblances enables us to avoid the sweeping generalizations because these resemblances are not stable. Quite the opposite, they are viable to change and allow various degrees (similarity in one sense does not have to mean a similarity in all other senses, it can change in time or degree).
To conclude, I would like to note that functionality or dysfunctionality of the category of gender must be always viewed within the context in which it is used as well as within the framework of intentions and goals of concrete research programs. Of course, feminist thinking still has to deal with an acute task relating to the problem of "degree" (Farkašová1992) of productivity of the category of gender in the analysis of various aspects of social life, position of women in the network of social, political and power relationships as well as in creation of practical political strategies.
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