Social Justice Usage
Source: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
Gender: refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age.
New Discourses Commentary
The concept of gender is extremely important in Critical Social Justice, and it is a ripe site for the ideology of Theory to assert itself because the issue of gender is genuinely complicated, relatively poorly understood, and a place where sociological issues are likely to be highly relevant. In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, gender is ultimately socially constructed and, following the queer Theory of Judith Butler, performative (see also, gender performativity).
That is, in Critical Social Justice thought, gender is something that is learned and done, not something that necessarily has anything to do with one’s biological sex. Sex refers to features of the body for reproduction only and has nothing to do with who someone is; gender is the part that relates to who you are and who you experience yourself to be. Learning gender happens through socialization, which is roughly a kind of brainwashing society does to itself through which the dominant ideologies are produced, reproduced, maintained, and legitimated (see also, hegemony, internalized dominance, and internalized oppression). Here, those are about what it means to be masculine and feminine, what relationships those have with being male and female, and what injustices are perpetrated by social reproduction and enforcement of any norms around those issues (see also, hegemonic masculinity, hegemonic femininity, and violence of categorization). Men are believed to be socialized to be masculine, females are believed to be socialized to be feminine, and this is all quite oppressive.
Put more plainly, in Critical Social Justice Theory, gender is nothing more than a set of beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and practices that are culturally produced and culturally enforced that define (a) what it means to be masculine (a man) or feminine (a woman), (b) who is expected to conform with those beliefs, expectations, etc., and (c) how that production and enforcement takes place. That is, gender is something you do—or something that is done by you, perhaps more accurately—not something you are (and sex, usually, is something you are, except when that’s Theorized to have been foisted upon you by society too, say by “being inscribed at birth” upon you by putting it on your birth certificate, which is yet another form of socialization). In a landmark paper on this topic from 1987, “Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman (cited over 13,000 times), gender is defined wholly socially in this way. The idea that biology has something to do with gender is not just considered wrong but also immoral because such views could potentially be used by sexists and other bigots to enforce their bigotries.
This line of reasoning requires elaborating upon; what logic, if any, compels most feminists (as this view of gender—but not of sex—is often common to many radical feminists, though not all – see also, gender-critical and gender separatism) and almost all gender studies scholars and activists to be so wholly social constructivist with regard to the question of the relationship of sex and gender, rejecting biological explanations for gender more or less entirely, on principle.
The reason is because of how scholars and activists within these branches of Theory think. For them, discourses—how things are and may be spoken about—are the determiners of reality, and scientific discourses are seen as particularly powerful in this regard because of their strong relationship with knowledge and the truth (see also, biopower and Foucauldian). In this branch of thought, power and knowledge are the same thing (see also, power-knowledge), so knowledge about sex and gender is literally tantamount to political control where sex and gender are concerned. Biological discourses that support biological—not merely socialized—differences between men and women can therefore potentially be used to excuse sexism, misogyny, and other forms of gender discrimination (see also, gender violence) or will be used as such by at least some people. This, though, “legitimizes” those discourses and is intolerable. Theory must leave no possibility for “justifiable” discrimination that puts different genders into different roles or sets of expectations, which would then stratify society according to gender and create/maintain injustice. Thus, gender must be wholly considered a social construct.
That is the predominantly Foucauldian line of thought, which is dominant in gender studies, and there is a different but related Derridean line of thought that is more common among some feminists (though gender studies certainly makes use of it as well without hesitation – see also, postmodern and poststructuralism). That view targets discourses that maintain a binary (see also, phallogocentrism and non-binary). Though in application, this approach is often blurred with the Foucauldian concerns explained above, this view looks at the matter very differently. Here, the concern is much more that the language itself, not its application as knowledge, creates a social structure of oppression for whichever side of the binary is considered lesser, other, or, as Simone de Beauvoir would have it, second. The goal here, then, is not to suppress the binary, which fits the Foucauldian understanding better, but to deconstruct it and show that it contains contradictions and is thus absurd. Nevertheless, the view here is that gender is wholly socially constructed because it is a consequence of this gendered language, which needs to be remade. Despite the inherent incompatibility of these two views, queer Theory largely results from forcing them together, apparently significantly by misunderstanding Derrida so that he could be forced into a Foucauldian framework. (This is one of the main sites of disagreement between gender studies scholars and activists and gender-critical feminists, who are much clearer on their Derrida and strongly wish to maintain the physical binary of the sexes and to more or less do away with this new-fangled understanding of gender entirely.)
As all this confusing controversy indicates, gender genuinely is a complicated issue that is somehow related to biological sex. The question is how they are related. On the one hand, there seem to be very obvious connections between the two: most men are masculine in various ways and most women are feminine in various ways (see also, cisgender and cisnormativity), but that this is the case doesn’t explain why it is. On the other hand, these connections are not hard, fast, and universal. That all of us—and this dates back into antiquity—recognize that sentences like “she is a very masculine woman” make sense indicate that there’s some flexibility in gender (masculine/feminine) that is separate from the underlying biological sex (man/woman). Thus, gender being understood as the sets of traits associated with maleness and femaleness is also not controversial, nor is the idea that maleness and femaleness are, indeed, social constructions, that is, ideas about what it means to be male and to be female, which are, in fact, somewhat flexible. These facts give gender Theory a lot of room to make their case, even though that case is unlikely to be the correct representation of the relationship between sex and gender (mostly because it asks the wrong questions and looks at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope, in addition to having a morally driven and inflexible Theoretical view of the matter).
The relevant question about gender is why gender expressions as social constructions are the ways they are. Gender studies, thus Critical Social Justice Theory, has only one (mostly wrong) answer to this: socialization into a system of power that perpetuates social inequalities and dynamics of dominance and oppression. In reality, it is very likely that human beings evolved tendencies (which need not be hard and fast) to maintain certain intuitions about what it means to be male and what it means to be female because of the vastly different roles the two sexes would have needed to occupy for most of humanity’s pre-technological history. These sorts of ideas are usually explored by the field of evolutionary psychology, which has its own severe limitations, but is considered extremely problematic by the Theory of Critical Social Justice because it hypothesizes that men and women are likely to have evolved to be somewhat psychologically different, at least on average. Similar disdain is offered to biological explanations that appeal to hormone levels and their effects on both development and behavior (despite the fact that hormone treatment is considered an essential part of gender-affirming, formerly gender reassignment, formerly gender transitioning, formerly sex change protocols, and the testimonies of the lived experiences of trans people, both psychologically and physiologically, are quite intense regarding the significance of their influence).
Nevertheless, it seems exceedingly clear that some relationship exists between sex and gender, though it is not entirely clear what that relationship is. Accordingly, a number of different perspectives exist to try to explain this relationship. These are taken more or less seriously. For example, the arch-nemesis view to that of gender Theory would be sex essentialism (see also, biological essentialism), which would more or less posit that gender is a direct consequence of biology and thus there is no meaningful difference between sex and gender at all (and, in more extreme interpretations, any such disagreement is best attributed to mental illness). This view is also unlikely to be correct and is accordingly becoming quite uncommon and viewed increasingly as antiquated and even sexist or misogynistic (not wholly unfairly).
Another view is much more mainstream and seemingly strongly backed by science, and it posits that both biology and culture and other social forces (including socialization) are somehow relevant to gender. That is, it recognizes that socialization is relevant to defining and maintaining permissible gender roles and that biology likely plays some underlying roles (and thus, often, that gender norms themselves are at least partially the results of biological differences between men and women). The specifics and degrees to which these various complicated factors are relevant are primary issues of debate within this spectrum of perspectives. Clearly, this view is likely to accept much of what (careful) evolutionary psychology has to say on the matter, or at least its underlying premise: human evolution shaped human psychology, and because men and women have significantly different biologies, they would also have been likely to evolve different proclivities. This view, along with the view that human biology itself (e.g., hormones) might influence psychology, is considered problematic within Critical Social Justice for the reason expressed above: it could perpetuate bigotry. It is also overwhelmingly the most likely.
As explained above, yet another view is that of the Theory of Critical Social Justice, which has adopted many of its views from gender studies. This view is committed to a (nearly) wholly socially constructivist view of the world, especially gender, and thus sees gender (nearly) wholly as a social construct (see also, blank slatism). Indeed, the parenthetical “nearly” here is meant to indicate that even in those cases where gender studies scholars and activists will admit that biology may play some role with respect to gender and the formation of a gender identity, they insist that the social constructions of gender are the overwhelmingly more important feature to focus upon. This view is, like its arch-nemesis, very unlikely to be the correct one, but unlike sex essentialism at present, it is widely advocated for, has significant reach upon the public consciousness, and is used to define policy. This is unlikely to have better results than when sex essentialism enjoyed a similar level of undue support.
Note: This term also has a specialized usage as a verb, “to gender,” in Critical Social Justice. To understand how gender is Theorized in Critical Social Justice, see gender studies.
Binary; Biopower; Blank slatism; Cisgender; Cisnormativity; Critical; Deconstruction; Derridean; Discourses; Dominance; Equality; Feminism; Foucauldian; Gender (v.); Gender-affirming; Gender critical; Gender identity; Gender performativity; Gender separatism; Gender studies; Gender violence; Hegemonic femininity; Hegemonic masculinity; Hegemony; Ideology; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Knowledge(s); Legitimate; Lived experience; Man; Misogyny; Non-binary; Norm; Oppression; Performativity; Phallogocentrism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Problematic; Queer Theory; Radical feminism; Science; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexism (systemic); Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Structure; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Violence of categorization; Woman
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 184.
Gender: The socially prescribe and enforced roles, behaviors, and expectations that are assigned to male and female bodies. These roles determine how you are “supposed” to feel and act based on your body.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 16–17.
But even our conception of what girls and boys are is rooted in our culture. Although sex and gender are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. Sex refers to the biological, genetic, or phenotypical characteristics that are used to distinguish female and male bodies: genitals, body structure, hormones, and so on. These biological differences among humans are necessary for reproduction. Gender, on the other hand, is what it means to have that body in that culture. Gender refers to the roles, behaviors, and expectations our culture assigns to those bodily differences: how you are “supposed” to feel and act based on whether your body is seen as female or male. Males are expected to learn to “act like a man”—they are trained into “masculinity”; and females are expcted to learn to “act like a woman”—they are trained into “femininity.”
Source: MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 6.
Stopped as an attribute of a person, sex inequality takes the form of gender; moving as a relation between people, it takes the form of sexuality. Gender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women.
Revision date: 4/2/20