CW: Transphobia, ableism
“Gender equality” is a fashionable phrase. Neoliberal feminism would have us believe that gender equality is a suitable end-goal for feminism. Certainly, this is a convenient assertion, and doesn’t require a huge amount of critical thinking. It is, however, painfully short-sighted and inadequate. To advocate for gender equality, and simultaneously ignore the structural foundations of the patriarchy and endorse the existence of oppressive gender roles, is paradoxical. The solution cannot be simply equality. It must be the dissolution of gender as we know it.
Gender is not innate, nor inevitable. Gender is a socially constructed class system in which the class of man benefits from the systematic oppression of the class of woman (as anti-trans ‘feminists’ have appropriated some of the language of gender abolition, it is important to make clear that this category of women absolutely includes trans women). While sex refers to physical and biological characteristics, gender is a term to describe behaviours and attitudes assigned to these features. We gender biological sex characteristics just as we gender toys, clothing and colours. There is nothing inherently masculine about the colour blue – yet since we have a concept of gender, we assign cultural significance to that colour.
Similarly, we assign arbitrary roles to biological sex. Males are expected to fulfil a masculine gender role just as females are expected to fulfil a feminine gender role. People who deviate from these culturally enforced norms are subjugated. Transgender and non-binary people, for example, are subject to unjust levels of violence and abuse for “violating” the dominant gender ideology. It is also critical to note that while gender roles have existed for millennia, the modern gender binary is a narrative of Christianity, colonialism and capitalism, and proliferated wildly with British colonialists’ criminalising of non-binary existences throughout their colonies. Simultaneously, many marginalised groups such as women of colour and disabled people have been systematically excluded from modern conceptions of gender. Normative femininity, for example, has been traditionally tied to whiteness and ableism.
Gender abolitionists call for the dissolution of gender roles and associated cultural norms. A utopian society, for the gender abolitionist, would involve an elimination of the gender class system by ceasing to socialise people into arbitrary roles based on biological sex. One’s sex characteristics would ideally become culturally insignificant. So long as the social classes of man and woman exist (and females are socialised into femininity and males into masculinity), the existence of gender is inherently oppressive.
But what if I want to keep my gender? This is an important question, particularly when considering the impact of gender abolition on the identities of those in marginalised groups, such as transgender and non-binary people. It is important to note that gender abolition is about dismantling the basal structures of the patriarchy, not about barring people from expressing their identity. So although the elimination of socialised gender roles is, in theory, the eventual elimination of gender itself (for example, the social classes of man and woman are abolished), gender abolition does not prevent people from engaging with masculinity and femininity and constructing their identities around those concepts. Rather, any conception of gender would arise from within, and be part of one’s self-identity, rather than a tool used by society to prescribe a role or identity. Hence, these identities would no longer emerge from or reinforce structures of power and no one would be forced into a rigid binary.
The very idea that we can prescribe a positive set of behavioural characteristics to one’s sex is inherently flawed. Human brains are not sexually dimorphic. The idea of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is a product of neurosexism, and has been discredited. This is not to say that some sex-based differences don’t exist outside of socialisation – but rather that these differences are patterns and resist dimorphic categorisation. Sex itself, in fact, is not a binary, but a biological spectrum. Nevertheless, even if we entertain the idea that certain traits are linked to biological differences – such as aggressiveness being linked to the concept of maleness – this does not automatically justify the existence of a set of socially enforced stereotypes dictating how males or females ought to act. We can and should still want to rewrite cultural narratives for males and females and relinquish a gender binary which cannot capture the intricacy and diversity of human behaviour.
What, then, is the way forward? Firstly, we must acknowledge that the total abolition of gender is, at this point, a utopian dream. Because gender is influenced by, and enshrined in, religion, medicine, law, culture and so on, its abolition involves the revision of the most foundational aspects of society. Policy action has the ability to limit the material divisions of gender – for example, through universal healthcare, universal housing, prison abolition and bureaucratic reform. Individually, we can and must start to recognise and dissect the ways in which we have undergone gendered socialisation from our family, friends, education and the mass media. Why do we, as women, feel ugly if we do not wear makeup or shave? Why do we assign arbitrary cultural significance to anything from colours to shampoo bottles? Why do we force gendered stereotypes onto our own children? Furthermore, gender abolitionism cannot exist in isolation. Women and gender nonconforming people of colour have a unique experience under the patriarchy, and eliminating oppression based on gender must pay attention to intersections of race and gender.
“Gender equality” under the patriarchy – which by definition is a relationship of dominance – is fallacious. We must deconstruct our archaic belief in gender itself.
Artwork by Mia Clement.