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Sex/Gender Distinction: A Reply to Plumwood

LETTERS

SEX/GENDER DISTINCTION:

A REPLY TO PLUMWOOD
Dear RP,
In Radical Philosophy 51, Spring 1989, you published a paper
by Val Plum wood titled ‘Do we Need a Sex/Gender Distinction?’. In that paper Plumwood makes extensive use of, and
reference to, a paper titled ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender
Distinction’ which appeared in Beyond Marxism? Interventions After Marx (eds. J. AlIen and P. Patton). I would appreciate the opportunity to pass certain comments, observations
and criticisms on Plumwood’s paper, and in particular, the
uses to which she puts the above mentioned paper.

Plum wood claims that the debate concerning the sex/
gender distinction has, in part, been based on confusing:

(a) ‘degenderingl” which implies ‘some sort of radical
restructuring or reformation of gender differences in
[Western] society’, (a formulation general enough to
service both the ‘new right’ and the ‘hard left’)
with
(b) ‘degendering2″ which implies ‘removing all structure
of social difference and meaning attached to male and
female biologies and bodies’ (a formulation that is difficult to imagine anyone entertaining).

Plumwood also claims that the target of the critique offered in
‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction’ is degendering2,
and that the position of the author of that paper is ‘essentialist’, ‘philosophically separatist’, and ‘utopian’.

Having carefully read Plumwood’s paper I must confess
that I am at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the
paper she read and the one with which I am familiar. Possibly,
she has confused ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction l ‘ ,
written by Moira Gatens l , with another paper, ‘A Critique of
the Sex/Gender Distinction2′, written by, I assume, one Moira
Gatensr I am quite happy to defend the former paper and own
up to being historically continuous with Moira Gatens l , but
emphatically deny any association with the latter paper or the
latter author, who – from the argument presented in Plumwood’s paper – does indeed seem to be an essentialist, a
utopian and a philosophical separatist. Alternatively, if we
take account of the meagre funds available to Intervention, it
is (just) conceivable that the copy that Plum wood purchased
was faulty – perhaps whole lines, paragraphs or even pages
were missing? It is difficult to explain her remarks and assessment of’ A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction’ unless she
did, in fact, work from some other paper: the one I have here
54

called ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction2’.

I will attempt to clarify the problem by singling out some
of her most contentious criticisms.

(i) Plum wood criticises the account offered of the term
gender in ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction2’ because
it fails to note some of the more ‘subtle’ uses of the term, for
example, Connell (1987); Harding (1983; 1984); Jaggar
(1983); and Lloyd (1984). Clearly this criticism cannot be
addressed to me since’ A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction l ‘ was written in 1982.

(ii) Apparently, the author of ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction2′ claims that gender is related to an ”’imagined” body’ (7), which has to do with ‘mental imagery’ (8),
and which ‘makes gender totally a function of social thought
systems, and neglects the material aspects of the production
of gender, except as causal consequences of thought systems’

(8). Clearly, those versed in psychoanalytic theory do not
understand the ‘imaginary body’ as having much to do with
‘mental imagery’ (references cited in footnotes 11,25,29,33,
35, 40 and 43 in ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinctionl ‘

are relevant here). On the contrary, and as I claim in ‘A
Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction/: ‘The imaginary
body is socially and historically specific in that it is constructed by: a shared language; the shared psychical significance and privileging of various zones of the body; and
common institutional practices and discourses (e.g. medical,
juridical, and educational) on and through the body.’ One
would have thought it uncontentious that language is a material practice and that institutional practices are tautologically
material practices. Plumwood’s radical ‘new’ theory of gender, as presented on page 8, is, in fact, little more than a restatement of views which can be found in ‘A Critique of the
Sex/Gender Distinctionl ‘.

(iii)
Apparently, to claim that it is an ‘historical fact’

that ‘we are situated in a society that is divided and organised
in terms of sex’, and always have been, is equivalent, by
Plumwood’s lights, to claiming that we will always be thus
situationed (8). This is the sin of Philosophical Separatism.

Who is guilty of having committed this sin is not clear.

(Maybe that Moira Gatens2 again!). I, on the contrary, have no
interest in a metaphysics of sexual difference and have never
professed to have such an interest. Quite early in ‘A Critique
of the Sex/Gender Distinctionl ‘ (148) I make clear my position – in a footnote, it is true 1 – in the following terms: ‘To
insist on two bodies is strategically important given that we
live in a patriarchal society that organises itself around pure
Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

sexual difference, that is male or female, and will not tolerate
sexual ambiguity, for example, hermaphrodites, but forces a
definite either/or sex on each person (see Foucault, M., Herculine Barbin, Pantheon, NY, 1980). However, even the biological determination of sex is not so straightforwardly clear
and we must acknowledge sex as a continuum and bodies as
multiple’ (158). Hardly a metaphysics of sexual difference.

(iv)
Her next point of criticism concerns certain
comments on the differences between male and female transsexualism. Plum wood, after a rather long quote (see p. 9),
suggests that I ‘presuppose a far from inevitable feature of
existing society; namely, that a woman has sole and exclusive
responsibility for the rearing of children, and that “mothers”
in this sense are exclusively female … ‘ and hence ‘the role of
women as mothers (and hence a certain sort of unchangeable
female nature) is treated as an inevitable part of a social
structure’ (9). This is the second most startling claim made by
Plumwood (the first appears below). I presuppose” nothing of
the sort. I actually went to the trouble to read Stoller’s works
Sex and Gender (1968) and The Transsexual Empire (1975),
and, believe it or not, the mothers of the (male) transsexuals
were overwhelmingly females, that is women. Not an inevitable, ahistorical, unchanging, immutable fact, I will grant
you, but none the less a modest empirical, socially specific
fact about the childhood of the transsexuals studied by Stoller. I say nothing about transsexuals in future, or hypothetical
societies, nor do I even suppose that they (transsexuals) will
exist.

(v) The last, and most startling criticism made by Plumwood is that I, like all Philosophical Separatists, aim ‘ultimately at the reversal of values and power, substituting a
gynocentric separatism for androcentric tradition’ (11). She
quotes, out of context, the following passage to support this:

The problem is not the socialisation of women to femininity and men to masculinity but the place of these behaviours in the network of social meaning and the
valorising of one (the male) over the other (the female)
and the resultant mischaracterisation of relations of
difference as relations of superiority and inferiority
(11).

This ‘allows’ her – but even in isolation I fail to see how this
passage supports her conclusion – to wilfully invert the intention of my paper and ascribe to me a view of ‘fixed feminine
essences’ and ‘cultural feminism’ (11). Yet, I repeatedly
reject such a stance in my paper, for example on page 155: ‘It

bears repetition that this statement does not imply a fixed
essence to “masculine” and “feminine” but rather an historical specificity.’ Plumwood’s footnote 17 conveniently omits
this sentence. Simple reversal of values has never been my
aim or desire since reversal (supposing it possible) amounts to
the perpetuation of oppressive relations. Obviously what is
required is a serious questioning of the dualisms and dichotomies that govern Western life and Western thought. This
questioning was and is the aim of my work. The questioning
of the sex/gender dualism makes up part of this work. I do not
reject, holus bolus, the sex/gender distinction. Rather I sought
to expose what I took to be its confusions and inadequacies.

Like everyone else, I still use the terms ‘masculine’ and
‘feminine’ but I try to keep in mind the problematical status of
these terms.

The conception of gender mooted by Plum wood is very
similar to the view offered in ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender
Distinction l ‘. So, Plum wood has got it nearly, but not quite,
right. She makes the same slide from the ‘actual world’ to
‘possible worlds’ that I criticised Chodorow for making (see
‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction l ‘, pp. 150-53). Of
course, there is nothing wrong with proposing ideals to which
we may aspire but these ideals should not be allowed to
displace current struggles around existing, oppressive material practices. In so far as Plum wood misses the concern with
material present practices, she still misses the import of the
conclusion to my paper, which is that ‘women’s bodies, and
the representation and control of women’s bodies [is] a crucial stake in [feminist] struggles’ (156).

These unfortunate aspects of Plumwood’s rather contentious reading of ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction’

are further exacerbated by the difficulty of obtaining that
paper. Fortunately, this difficulty is surmountable. British,
and other, readers may be interested to note that ‘A Critique
of the Sex/Gender. Distinctionl ‘ will shortly be reprinted in
Feminist Knowledge as Critique and ConStruct (ed. S.

Gunew), Routledge, 1989. This will afford them the opportunity, if they so choose, to read my claims concerning gender
and sexual difference in context. Perhaps then ‘A Critique of
the Sex/Gender Distinction1 ‘ can be put to rest: a kindness, it
seems to me, under the circumstances.

Molra Gatens
Note
1

Do people read footnotes?

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55

RESPONSE TO GATENS
Moira Gatens’ original paper, “A Critique ,of the Sex/Gender
Distinction”, was vigorous, forceful, clear and unambiguously dismissive of both the sex/gender distinction and of
degendering/regendering (e.g. she writes on p. 153: “to suggest the degendering of society as a political strategy is
hopelessly utopian, ahistorical, and functions theoretically
and practically as a diversionary tactic.”). Because both of
these concepts seem to me to play an important role in change,
but were widely seen as discredited by her objections, I
undertook my discussion in RP 51. The version she offers us
now is plainly an attempt at modification of her original
stance. Thus the view of the distinction as taking the body to
be neutral and the mind to be tabula rasa is claimed in her
original paper (p. 144) to hold for “theorists of gender”
generally, with no qualifications. although she does herself
provide the basis for a more sophisticated account of the
distinction (a fact I clearly recognise in my discussion), there
is no suggestion at all in her original discussion that the
distinction might be rehabilitated or reworked, or that there
might exist ways of using it which do not make the assumptions she condemns; nor is there any suggestion that those
interested in regendering might have anyway of reformulating their political programme. To proceed to her specific
points.

I do not claim that the distinction has been in widespread
use in ways that do not support these sweeping claims against
it, but I do not think that this usage postdates her paper, and I
do not refer to the people she mentions (Connell, Hardinge,
Jaggar) as the support for this claim about these usages,
although it is true that they do apparently make use of it in
these alternative ways. I was not specifically gunning for her
in my remarks about idealism of the characterisation of gender in terms of the imaginary body (which she does identify as
a “psychical image” on p. 151 and as a “culturally shared
fantasy” on p. 152) but simply aiming to sharpen up the
resulting notion.

A careful reading of my paper would show that I do not
claim that either essentialism or philosophical separatism is
explicitly believed by or stated by her. I argued, correctly I
think, that these were consequences of some of the claims she
makes – an important difference.Few of us believe all the
consequences of our beliefs. The fact that she does not wish to
be identified with these positions now shows that she is no
exception to this rule. I did not claim that her views were
utopian, but that one of her proposals (for reversing values)
was more utopian than degendering, which she claims is
utopian.

I have carefully read, in context, the disputed passage on
p. 154 which says “The problem is not the socialisation of
women to femininity and men to masculinity but the place of
these behaviours in the network of social meaning and the
valorising of one (the male) over the other (the female) and
the resultant mischaracterisation of relations of difference as
relations of superiority and inferiority. “It seems to me to
follow quite clearly from this that the problem is not the
gendered characteristic or behaviours themselves, but the
value and meaning attached to them, and that if the latter is the
problem this is what we have to concentrate on changing. This
yields a reverse-value position or something very close to it,
and is subject to the same kinds of objections.

I believe it is important to retain a perspective on gender

56

and gender structures as open to change, and that current
accounts of the body and its social significance as inseparable
(as in the slogan “there is no neutral body”), and the emphasis
on the specificity of the situated body, often obscures the
possibility of change, and my remarks were designed to show
how this comes about via confusion of degendering/regendering and how treating the body as the situated body can lead to
essentialism. In this context, Gatens’ claim in her discussion
of transsexualism, that the relation of the female child to its
mother cannot be symmetrical (p. 154) to that of the male
child (and hence that transsexualism must have a different
meaning for each sex) overlooks the possibility – for some an
actuality – that the female child is mothered by a male parent,
in which case her relationship to him could in that respect
parallel that of the male transsexual to his (female) mother.

Her argument thus fails to establish that men and women must
be what they normally are in sexist societies, qualitatively
different sorts of persons. A “slide between actual and possible worlds” is what all of us involved in creating change are
engaged in. There is nothing utopian about proposals for
regendering; it is a struggle happening here and now, and
which would happen more if it were not dismissed, for bad
reasons, as both utopian and theoretically unsound.

Moira Gatens’ original paper was an important and vigorous contribution to the debate at this time and focuses on a
number of important problems and dangers in both the concepts of gender and degendering. I am pleased to see that it
will be reprinted. I hope that this discussion will draw attention to the ways in which the sweeping and dismissive claims
made in the paper require modification.

Val Plumwood

Radical Philosophy 53, Autumn 1989

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