Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gender, Power, and Difference

This week’s readings for my Women’s Studies core course were taken together the source of provocative questions for the field of Women’s Studies. The readings fall into three groups. First, I read a portion of West and Fenstermaker’s book Doing Difference, Doing Gender. This book is a collection of essays by West and Fenstermaker with a series of co-authors. West and Fenstermaker are sociologists and their work is grounded in that discipline. The first essay by the two of them titled, “Doing Gender,” was originally written in 1977 and published in 1987 in Gender & Society (the journal that featured Andersen’s work from my post for my history class last week.) In this first article, the authors articulate the differences among sex, sex category, and gender. The sex category distinction was a new and interesting one to me. They describe the sex category as the public attribution of male or female that occurs for children even prior to gender “achievement.” The second essay, written later, is titled “Doing Difference.” In this essay they explore how using a gender lens other differences (particularly race) can be considered within sociology. Finally, we read responses to the work of West and Fenstermaker from Patricia Hill Collins, Lionel A. Maldonado, Dana Y. Takagi, Barrie Thorne, Lynn Weber, and Howard Winant. Each had a strong critique of West and Fenstermaker’s work. In our class discussion of these materials a central question was what is the impact of this on thinking about gender as a category for women’s studies. This is an interesting question, though for me, it is a bit like having a conversation with a native French speaker. I don’t speak French in the ways that I don’t speak sociology, so my interest in the article is not in how I can critique it, but how I can use it in my work. My answer to that is still uncertain.
The reading constellation was Mary Hawkesworth’s essay, “Counfounding Gender,” and the responses to that, including Oyeronke Oyewumi’s “De-confounding Gender: Feminist Theorizing and Western Culture, a Comment on Hawkesworth’s ‘Confounding Gender.’” Hawkesworth in her essay does what I consider central women’s studies theory work. She examines four books closely and then generates new theoretical perspectives for women’s studies. The four books are Steven Smith’s Gender Thinking, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, R. W. Connell’s Gender and Power, and Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna’s Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. I’ve only read one of these book (Butler, of course) so that makes entering the dialogue interesting. One of the things that Hawkesworth does that I admire is provide a good discursive overview of each of the books (although I am sure that some of the authors would quibble with her descriptions). Hawkesworth begins with the work of Joan Scott and Sandra Harding in their writing about gender in regard to history and science, respectively. Hawkesworth writes, “Despite the diversity and richness of these accounts, each also constructs a tale of gender that is markedly unsettling” (p. 654.) While I understand some of her concerns, I also wonder about the efficacy of using scholarship that is grounded in a particular discipline and therefore engaged in a particular dialogue within that discipline. This is an interesting question for me as someone who wants to do interdisciplinary work – how to use it on the terms that it is created and also use it and expand it for other purposes. At any rate, Hawkesworth builds a critique of these feminist works as striving for a “universal explanans” and as such they work “against a feminist politics that tries to build solidarities across the divisions of race, class, and ethnicity” and ultimately she asserts they structure “a politics that is insufficiently inclusive” (p. 681.) Her article is paired with responses from many of the authors. Most interesting is Oyewumi’s response which is a critique of a “Westocentric” frame in all of the work. I found that article quite iconoclastic.
The third area of reading was an article by Judith Butler from 1987 “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” This article forms a basis for what would become in 1990 Butler’s Gender Trouble. Butler through a Foucauldian deconstructive analysis questions the ways in which current feminist theory actually works to enforce a binary gender system. It’s quite an elegant argument that reaches fruition in the book.
Taken as a whole these three reading areas call into question the fundamental base of study of Women’s Studies. If not gender, what? If not women, what? What is the basis of Women’s Studies? What is the discipline about? Ultimately, I think the discipline is about study of a variety of subjects that are informed by gender and the experiences of people in relation to sex and gender in our society. For now, that will have to do.

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