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Sex/Gender

Oxford Handbooks Online

Sex/Gender
Mara Viveros Vigoya
The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory (Forthcoming)
Edited by Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth

Subject: Political Science, Political Theory, Comparative Politics


Online Publication Date: Jan DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199328581.013.42
2015

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the construction of the modern concept of gender and its distinct uses and formulations
in relation to the categories sex and sexuality. It presents the main debates within international feminism
concerning gender as a theoretical and political project. In particular, the article explores diverse ways in which
gender has been differentiated from or opposed to sex; the meanings that gender difference came to bear
during the 1960s and the 1970s; the place that men and masculinities have occupied in theories of gender; the
borders that separate and link gender with sex and sexuality; diverse feminist challenges to gender binarism,
attempts to universalize gender, and the discursive coloniality of hegemonic feminisms; and, the contributions of
the feminisms of the global South to contemporary gender studies.

Keywords: gender, sex, sexuality, feminisms, women, men

A Brief History of the Concept

The history of the modern concept of gender, which distinguishes between biological and social sex, has been
sedimented over several decades, and includes contributions from different disciplines. It is important to note, as
Joan Scott does (Butler et al. 2007), that the feminist use of the term gender is first and foremost an appropriation.
Although the feminist movement of the second half of the twentieth century contributed to its widespread diffusion,
the concept was not developed within the movement itself (Scott 2010).

The works of Margaret Mead and Simone de Beauvoir are often cited as antecedents of the concept. Meads (1935)
field research demonstrated that masculine and feminine roles vary socially and culturally, and do not depend on
biology. She documented the arbitrariness and nonuniversal character of these cultural classifications, and
defended the rights of people to freely express their individuality. Despite the importance of her work, Mead did not
question the hierarchical ordering of mens and womens status (Hurtig and Pichevin 1991; Delphy 2001). This
critique was advanced by Beauvoir in The Second Sex ([1949] 1953). Working from the existentialist view that
every human being is singularly situated, Beauvoir suggested that in the case of a woman, the singularity of her
situation lies in part in being positioned as Other, as an object destined to immanence, without the possibility of
conceptualizing herself as a Subject through her projects. Beauvoir sought to demonstrate that women are not
naturally constituted but produced as a historically variable cultural project. This is what she meant when she
proposed: One is not born but becomes a woman (Beauvoir [1949] 1953, 267).

Several works (Fausto-Sterling 2000b; Fassin 2008; Dorlin 2008; Preciado 2009, among others) have called
attention to the use of the term gender in medical discourses since the end of the 1940s, which in the United
States, aimed to explain so-called sexual deviance. Psychologist John Money reformulated Meads findings about
the socialization of boys and girls, first introducing the concept of gender roles in his doctoral dissertation
(Preciado 2009). Money deployed this concept in conjunction with his efforts to normalize, through hormonal and

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surgical treatments, the sex of hermaphrodite children (today labeled as intersexual), whose sexual organs were
considered indeterminate by medicine (Money and Ehrhardt 1972; Preciado 2009).

Money affirmed that sexual behavior and orientation as male or female does not have an innate, instinctive
basis. Yet he did not take the additional step of claiming that the categories feminine and masculine are
without biological basis. Nor did he question the assumption of the existence of only two sexes. His aim was solely
to understand normal development (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 73). It was psychiatrist Robert Stoller who popularized
the term gender identity by founding the Gender Identity Research Clinic in 1954; but Stoller used the concept of
gender in a descriptive rather than an analytical way. Stollers main contribution was to differentiate sexual identity
the sense of belonging to a biological sexfrom gender, which was the product of a determined socialization
(Molinier in Delphy et al. 2012). Stoller developed this distinction in his book Sex and Gender: On the Development
of Masculinity and Femininity (1968).

The transformation of a normative conceptualization of gender into a critical tool in theoretical and political terms is
the result of feminism as a social movement. Indeed, in her book Sex, Gender and Society (1972), British
sociologist and feminist Ann Oakley radicalized the use that Money and Stoller had made of the concept of gender.
Interrogating the order of the sexes and sexualities from a critical perspective, Oakley suggested that a sense of
belonging to the feminine or the masculine gender is not automatic but the result of learning. From Oakley on,
pioneer scholars of this new field of research sought to denaturalize sex.

The Sex/Gender Dyad: Feminist Debates of the Second Wave

In 1975, two volumes considered foundational to US feminist anthropology (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974; Reiter
1975) advanced debates about the distinction between nature and culture, and the cultural variability of gender
roles.1 Sherry Ortner (1974) attempted to explain the origin of the subordination of women through the common
association of nature with women and culture with men and the symbolic hierarchy that privileged culture over
nature. Through an extensive investigation of ethnographic material, Michelle Rosaldo (1974) offered an alternative
explanation of the subordination of women, grounded in the asymmetrical association of the public sphere with
men and the domestic sphere with women, and the systemic privileging of the public male domain over the private.

In one of the most cited articles, The Traffic in Women, Gayle Rubin (1975) proposed a feminist rereading of the
theories of Claude Lvi-Strauss, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Her critique
provided a radical reinterpretation Lvi-Strausss claims about the incest taboo as being not only the foundation of
kinship but the norm that initiates culture. In Rubins artful analysis, the exogamous marriage practices that Lvi-
Strauss hailed as a cultural achievement were refigured as the traffic in women. Rubins study (1975, 158),
considered today one of the most influential in gender theory, identified the existence of a systematic social
apparatus which takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated women as products. Referring to
this transformative apparatus as the sex/gender system, Rubin pointed out that, through marriage, kinship
systems transform males and females into men and women, each an incomplete half which can only find
wholeness when united with the other (179). Advancing a devastating critique of naturalist perspectives, Rubin
defined gender as a socially imposed division of the sexes and a product of the social relations of sexuality
(179).

Between the end of the 1970s and the mid-1980s, US feminist debates concerning gender difference pitted
equality feminists against difference feminists. Equality feminism, articulated in the early works of Betty Friedan
(1963) and Shulamith Firestone (1970), dominated the US feminist scene until the end of the 1970s.
Conceptualizing gender difference as an instrument and artifact of male dominance, equality feminists sought to
throw off the shackles of difference and establish equality (Fraser 1997, 175176). By contrast, difference
feminism, which emerged at the end of the 1970s, encouraged the re-evaluation of femininity, opposing the
androcentric and sexist undervaluation of feminine achievements. In her well-known work In a Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Womens Development (1982) Carol Gilligan, for example, argued that theories of moral
development, which privileged adherence to Kantian norms of universalizability, while devaluing contextualized
decision-making, reflected a masculine model of reasoning that haunted the Western philosophical canon.

By demonstrating that the biological and the social belonged to distinct domains, and that social inequalities on the
grounds of sex were not natural, feminist works sought to disrupt notions that power inequalities between men

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and women derived from anatomical differences. Toward that end, gender was conceptualized as the cultural
elaboration of sexual difference, which opened a space for the analysis and denunciation of the social
construction of inequalities between the sexes. Although Rubin had analyzed the relation between sex and gender
as an interdependence, the great majority of feminist authors in this period defined gender on the basis of sex, as if
sex preceded gender temporallyand therefore logically.

This widely shared presupposition was questioned by the French collectives that gathered around what is known
as materialist feminism, a movement that conceptualized the sexes not only as biosocial categories but also as
classes (in the Marxist sense), constituted by and through the power men have over women (Mathieu 2000). For
authors such as Nicole-Claude Mathieu, Christine Delphy, Paola Tabet, Colette Guillaumin, and Danile Kergoat,
there are no natural dominations, only those that are materially constituted by dividing people into dominant and
dominated groups. Delphy (2001), one of the emblematic figures of this current of thought, emphasized that power
relations between men and women define gender, affording gender precedence over sex. For Delphy, gender
constructs sex by establishing a hierarchical sexual dichotomy, presenting sexual categories as antagonistic and
organizing unequal norms, rights, and opportunities on the basis of sex.

One of the key concepts for this current of thought is patriarchy, understood as a system of subordination of
women based on economic relations (Delphy 2001, 141). Within this system, women are described as a class
founded upon the production of free domestic labor, which defines womens oppression and exploitation in
completely material terms (Bereni et al. 2008, 23). The sexual division of labor and the social relations of sex
(rapports sociaux de sexe)2 emerge as inseparable terms that form an epistemological system (Kergoat 2000, 40).

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist theoretical reflections and political positions in France were structured around two
axeswork and sexualitywhich bear some resemblance to the posterior equality/difference debates in the United
States. In the intense exchanges between the group Psychanalyse et Politique and the feminist materialists,
sexuality3 and work were presented as siloed and opposed domains (Molinier, 2014; Fougeyrollas-Schwebel 2005,
16). The psychoanalytic feminists accorded priority to a symbolic revolution that would redefine representations of
sexual difference and open the possibility of other types of thinking and culture (Fouque 1995). Luce Irigaray
([1974] 1985) advanced a dramatic reinterpretation of fundamental categories of psychoanalysis, from the
question of the feminine unconscious to the nature of the feminine body and the bond between women and their
mothers. Denouncing the hom(m)osexualit of Freudian and Lacanian representations of female sexuality,
Irigaray suggested that these phallocentric approaches radically repressed the feminine.

The materialist feminists, by contrast, accorded primacy to the historical and social, and therefore arbitrary and
reversible, character of sexual hierarchy, insisting that women existed as a social group as a result of their
oppression and exploitation by the social class of men. Offering contradictory diagnoses of the causes of
womens oppression and opposing strategies for social change, French psychoanalytic and materialist feminists
shared little ground. Those committed to critique of the dominant symbolic order and those searching to abolish
sex difference and effective tactics to promote equality offered two irrefutable and mutually exclusive theoretical
positions (Fougeyrollas-Schwebel 2005), ignoring that they are two imperative fields of feminist action and thought.
Later theoretical works and political activism, however, found means to bridge the opposition that pitted work
against sexuality through notions such as sexual labor (Molinier, 2014).

In the United States, the debates between equality and difference were based on very distinct ideological and
philosophical foundations. For example, in the United States the struggle for equality between men and women is
largely inspired by liberalism, as opposed to Marxism, and the criticism of androcentrism is based on object
relations theory as posed by Chodorow (1999), and not on a discussion involving Freudian and Lacanian theories,
as Irigaray presented. Numerous scholars criticized the equality versus difference debate in the United States
for ignoring the interdependence between equality and difference and losing track of the power relations that
allowed an opposition between equality and inequality to be transformed into an antagonism between equality and
difference (Scott 1996; Fraser 1997; De Lauretis 1987; Fougeyrollas-Schwebel 2005; Varikas 2006; Butler et al.
2007). In subsequent analyses, difference emerged as a plural concept that transcended a dichotomy between
the sexes and encompassed the diversity among women, mn and other gender positions (De Lauretis 1987).
As a consequence, the feminist agenda grew to oppose multiple social inequalities as well as cultural
androcentrism and heteronormativity (Fraser 1997).

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In addition, pioneering work illuminated the internal complexity and the polysemy that characterize the concept of
gender (Hawkesworth 1997) and its reference to diverse levels of analysis and to diverse logics that superimpose
each other and follow different historical trajectories (Connell 1987). Sandra Harding, R. W. Connell, and Joan Scott
proposed multidimensional definitions of gender. Harding (1983) identified three closely related elements: gender
as a category that confers meaning to social practice as a mode of organizing social relations and as a structure
of personal identity. Analyzing gender as a structure, Connell (1987) distinguished relations of power, production,
and cathexis (emotional bonds), all organized around sexual desire. In one of the most widely cited articles, Scott
(1986, 1067) conceived gender as a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences
between the sexes that involves four interrelated elements: a symbolic aspect, a normative aspect, an
institutional aspect and a subjective aspect.4 In addition, Scott noted that gender is a primary way of signifying
relationships of power (1069).

These theorizations of gender emphasized the complexity of the concept, the politics involved in constructions of
gender, and the necessity of making more rigorous use of gender as an analytical category, without falling into
untenable claims concerning genders explanatory force (Hawkesworth 1997, 713). Seeking to move beyond
descriptive uses of gender, Scott (1986) analyzed how gender constitutes and is constituted by the political
(Varikas 2006). Connell (1987) pointed out that gender, as a structure that orders social practice, interacts with
other social structures, such as race, class, nationality, or position in the world order. To understand gender,
then, we must constantly go beyond gender, since gender relations are a major component of social structure as
a whole (Connell 1995, 76).

Despite the resistances that gender elicited and still elicits, this term has been incorporated into a scientific
vocabulary even in languages in which it is not part of the normal lexicon.5 The use of gender has given
respectability to feminist studies within scientific circles, which had previously been suspicious of the partiality and
militancy of feminist analysis (Scott 1986). The concept of gender and the distinction between sex and gender,
which foregrounds gender as a social and cultural construction, have gained wide purchase. Nonetheless, the
nature of the relation between sex and gender remains a subject of controversy (Varikas 2006), as does the place
that men and masculinities can or should occupy in feminist theories and theories of gender.

Men and Masculinities in Feminist Theories and Theories of Gender

The historical relationship between feminist theories and discussions of men and masculinities is long-standing.
Feminist theorists like Beauvoir ([1949] 1953) questioned the masculine appropriation of universal humanity. In the
1960s, some liberal feminists in the United States struggled for equal access of men and women to social goods
and opportunities, and demanded that women and men be measured by the same standards (Gardiner 2005). Only
a segment of feminism criticized the conception of rationality associated with masculinity. In the same time frame,
French feminists argued that men as a group benefited from the subordination of women as a social group, despite
large disparities among men or subgroups of men (Viveros Vigoya 2008).

Throughout the 1980s, feminists of color called attention to interconnections between gender inequalities and other
hierarchies of difference. Black feminism and Third World feminism emphasized shared oppressions among women
and men within their own communities, insisting that masculinity be organized as a historically and culturally
specific construction (Combahee River [1977] 1983; Mohanty 1988). In addition, poststructuralist debates within
feminism from the end of the 1990s onwards questioned binary oppositions such as men/women and
heterosexual/homosexual. By contributing to an understanding that there are masculinities without men, like those
expressed by lesbian subcultures, such as drag-kings, butches, camioneras, garonnes, leather lesbians (Rubin
2011), this work eroded this widespread indifference to female masculinity [ ] [that] has sustained the complex
social structures that wed masculinity to maleness and to power and domination (Halberstam 1998, 2).

Although gender was conceived as a relational category from the outset, most feminist studies focused exclusively
on women. This was due in part to feminist efforts to illuminate patriarchal oppression (Carab and Armengol 2009),
and in part, to the challenge of overcoming methodological individualism and in thinking in politico-relational terms
(Stolcke 1996). In the mid-1970s, however, womens studies inspired a new field of mens studies or
masculinity studies, as Michael Kimmel (2009), one of its founders, prefers to call it.

Although there are many ways to study masculinity (Clatterbaugh 1997), Kimmel (1992) distinguishes two major

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orientations: those who define themselves as allies of feminism, ground masculinity studies in feminist theory and
press men to recognize their participation in social power6 ; and those who advance an autonomous approach to
studying masculinity, aimed at strengthening those men who feel devoid of power. Australian feminist R. W. Connell
(1995), who has played a critical role in advancing research about masculinities, laments that the field has failed
to produce a coherent science of masculinity because it has assumed that masculinity is an isolated object
rather than an aspect of a larger structure of gender (67). Connell also notes that the field has devoted too little
attention to masculinity as a structure of social practices that men and women engage through bodily experience,
personality, and culture (71).

Arguing that masculinity studies are an important contribution to gender studies and to social change, Kimmel
(2009, 19) has suggested that masculinity studies seek to question and transform the mechanisms that create and
reproduce masculinity; while also demonstrating that most men, despite the power they have over women, do not
feel powerful today. Indeed, Kimmel notes that men do not batter women when they feel powerful but when they
feel powerless, or when they believe they do not possess the rights they should have. Echoing Kimmels
observation, ric Fassin has distinguished in Fabre and Fassin (2003) between traditional masculine domination
and reactionary modern domination that arises in response to a perceived loss of power.

According to Fassin, unlike traditional domination, modern masculine domination is no longer grounded on the
assumed inequality between the sexes, or on the perpetuation of an immemorial and unquestionable patriarchal
order. It is defined in reaction to challenges to the patriarchal order posed by the demands of feminist as well as
gay and lesbian social movements for freedom and equality (Fabre and Fassin 2003, 42). In this sense, it
constitutes an undertow or backlash phenomenon designed to curb these achievements. While traditional
masculine domination presupposed masculine power, reactionary domination reflects, on the contrary, a perceived
loss of power and a defensive reaction. Multiple contemporary groups in diverse nations have been created to
protect the rights of men against what they have called the excesses of feminism.

Sex and Sexuality

From the outset, feminist theory has made numerous efforts to remove women from the category of nature and to
place them in culture as constructed and self-constructing social subjects in history (Haraway 1991, 134). For this
reason, feminists have had a complicated relationship to questions concerning nature, biology, or the body,
particularly as articulated in reductionist accounts that assume anatomical, hormonal, or chromosomal
determinism. In early feminist works, the concept of the sexed body occupied an ahistorical and nonproblematized
position. In the 1990s, however, sex was reconceptualized, not as a natural reality, but in relation to biological
materiality. Feminist scholars suggested that gender precedes sex and constitutes it in a corresponding social
reality, raising questions about the evident anatomical differences that seemed to exceed sheer social
expression. As feminist theorists probed the meaning of sex, their analyses shifted from an anatomo-
physiological frame that emphasized genital organs to a discursive frame that examined rhetorical figures, such as
synecdoche, in which a part of something is used to represent the whole. When groups of people are identified
by genitalia, anatomical sex becomes an exterior sign, a symbol of and principle of identification for men and
women (Bereni et al. 2008, 24).

Historically, conceptualizations of sex have varied greatly. In Making Sex (1990), Thomas Laqueur showed that
from classical Greek medical texts to the eighteenth century, feminine and masculine bodies were perceived as
fundamentally similar. Within the one-sex model, the feminine body was conceptualized not as a body of a
different sex, but as a lesser version of the masculine body. The two sex model that defines male and female
embodiment as an opposition, or as mutually exclusive categories emerged only in the seventeenth century, giving
rise to the notion that sex is determined by physiopathology, the anatomy of the genital apparatus, the gonads,
hormones and genetic information, etc. (Dorlin 2008). Within this determinist frame, biomedical discourse
conceptualized the feminine body as alterity. The sexualization of womens bodies extended from the reproductive
organs to all conceivable parts. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the essence of
femininity migrated from the uterus to the ovaries to the female sex hormones.

Feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000a, b) has demonstrated that the dichotomous classification of two
sexes cannot withstand scrutiny. Even within a biological frame that posits anatomical, gonadal, hormonal, and

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chromosomal criteria to define sex, more than two sexes exist. The biological indicators for sex are continuous
rather than discrete variables, and as such, they cannot differentiate all men from all women; nor can they support
the claim that men and women exhaust the morphological possibilities. The naturalization of sex as a dichotomous
variable, which has been enshrined in scientific discourses since the eighteenth century, is a political demarcation,
not a natural designation.7 Far from providing a neutral, objective description, biology constructs two sexes as a
natural reality, ignoring that bodies are sexed through alignment with a particular gender regimemade to
conform physically to the characteristics that socially define the sexes. Gender constructs sex, a process that is
masked by a sex/gender opposition based on the nature/culture opposition, which sciences like biology have
contributed to producing and reproducing (Harding 1986; Haraway 1991; Fausto-Sterling 2000b; Dorlin 2008).

Judith Butler (1990a, 1993a) has emphasized the persistence of the nature/culture dichotomy in the differentiation
between gender and sex and explored its effects. The idea of gender as social sex is strongly imbued with a
biological ideology that presumes the existence of a stable and precultural nature, altogether independent of social
mediation. Butler also noted that the concept of gender adopted by a good deal of feminist theory was codified as
heterosexual. Rather than being a neutral concept, it was grounded in the heteronormative regulation of sexuality.
Gender and sexuality have been inextricably linked across so many historical moments that the distinction
between these concepts became invisible. Only recently have scholars argued for the autonomy of sexuality as a
phenomenon and a field of study. This relative independence has made it possible to pose questions about the
relation between gender and sexuality, and between sexuality and feminism.

Feminist debates about sexuality initially focused on womens free disposition of their own bodies, generating the
1970s slogan my body is mine as a guiding principle for feminist struggles to defend the body as a privileged
space of autonomy. In 1980, Adrienne Rich built upon Rubins analysis of marriage as an institution that produced
and sustained male power over women, arguing that compulsory heterosexuality was the foundation of womens
oppression. For Rich (1980), recognizing the multifaceted bonds among women, the lesbian continuum, was one
way to erode the unquestionable character of heterocentrism and build bridges between lesbians and feminists.

During the same period, Monique Wittig ([1969] 1971) condemned heterosexuality as a system that defines women
only in relation to men, and facilitates mens appropriation of women. By promoting obligatory relations between
men and women, heterocentric thought generated a totalizing vision of history, structured by discursive categories
that only make sense within the heterosexual order (Wittig 1992). Conceptualizing lesbianism as a refusal of male
domination and a strategy to abolish women as a natural group, Wittig (1992) sought to break the heterosexual
contract according to which woman equals slave, and to overthrow all social sciences founded upon the
category of sex.

In 1984, Rubin revised her earlier formulations, proposing a useful way to think about sex and sexual politics in
order to create a radical theory of sex. As one of the first authors to problematize the complex relationship
between feminism and discourses on sex, Rubin identified two distinct perspectives: one that criticized the
restrictions imposed on womens sexual conduct, reclaiming the sexual liberalization of both men and women; and
another that perceived sexual liberalization as an extension of male privilege. Introducing a third alternative, Rubin
mapped a stance that sought to avoid both anti-porn fascism, on the one hand, and a supposed anything goes
libertarianism, on the other, [ ] construing both sides as equally extremist (Rubin 1984, 167).

Rubin characterized anti-porn feminism as antifeminist and questioned its alliance with anti-progressive political
forces such as the Christian Right during the repressive years of the Reagan Administration. As envisioned by
Catharine MacKinnon (1979) and Andrea Dworkin, the campaign against pornography was a struggle against
gender inequality, discrimination, exploitation and gendered violence. Pointing out that feminist stances amenable
to coalition with antisex forces raised powerful questions about the appropriateness of feminism as a foundation for
a theory of sexuality, Rubin called for analyses that recognized gender oppression as distinct from sexual
oppression. Emphasizing distinctions among gender, sexuality, and erotic desire, Rubin began to elaborate an
autonomous and specific theory and politics of sexuality, attuned to the particular forms of power and oppression
that characterize sexuality.

Social Movements Critical of Gender Binarism

From the 1990s onward, the generation that proclaimed itself third-wave feminism foregrounded the study of

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sexualitiespluralcriticizing sex binaries that institute gender and the ideology of gender as the condition of
intelligibility for human existence. Within this frame, the trans movement, which comprises transsexuals,
transgender and intersex people, transvestites, masculine femininities, feminine masculinities, and gender
nonconformists, gained great prominence. This movement challenged medical discourses that classified
transsexuality as a psychiatric pathology that requires treatment (Stryker and Whittle 2006), such as sex
reassignment surgery (Califia 1997), a procedure that reinforces the ideology of gender and its hierarchies. Trans
activists also challenged legal systems that entrenched dichotomous sex as the condition for rights bearing and for
citizenship (Bereni et al. 2008, 29-30).

Transgender people expressed, paradigmatically, not gender conformity but its disturbance (Butler 1990a), and in
so doing, revealed the existence of gender norms that are usually invisible (Fassin 2008). In developing her
analysis of gender, Butler (1993b) drew attention to both the normative character of the category gender,8 and to
the always open possibility of transgressing and denaturalizing these norms, and transforming heteronormative
practices. Trans activism and queer critique have embraced this transgressive agenda. Unlike the identitarian
model adopted by both the feminist and the gay movements in the United States, they endeavored to go beyond
homonormativitythe defense of the rights of homosexuals to live their lives as heterosexuals do. Instead, they
sought to transform minoritarian identities into reservoirs for political critique of majoritarian norms of life (Bourcier
2006). In summary, queer strategy consisted in developing a series of social dynamics to take advantage of the
open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when
the constituent elements of anyones gender, of anyones sexuality arent made (or cant be made) to signify
monolithically (Sedgwick 1993, 8).

In contrast to the North American context, in Latin America queer studies arose in critical dialogue with Latin
American feminists, striving to deepen their approaches and to make visible the forms and the people that have
queered thought in, and from, Latin America (Viteri, Serrano, and Vidal Ortiz 2011, 55). This task has involved
examining gender and sexualities as fields in transit and in constant dialogue with the contexts from which they
are produced and reproduced (49). These studies have extended the use of queer theory to empirical research
in the social sciences, examining different social facets of the contemporary Latin American world in all its
complexity and in its connections among the local, the global, the transnational and the diasporic.

Critiques of Universalized Accounts of Gender

Since the mid-1980s, feminists of color have challenged the notion of a sole feminine subject, woman, who
embodies universal criteria without regard for intersecting hierarchies of power such as race, class, nationality,
and sexuality. Feminists of color repeatedly criticized the arbitrariness and contingency of the binary oppositions
on which the concept relied (Viveros Vigoya 2004) and challenged the validity of any attempt to subordinate all
social categories to gender. Through the construction of a singular category woman and the potent political
myth called us (Haraway 1991, 155), theories of gender slid toward essentialism, which ignored the
heterogeneity of women, and the diversity within individual womeneach a nonunitary, multiple, and fragmented
subject (Bonder 1999; De Lauretis 1987). To move beyond the dichotomies masculine/feminine, human/machine,
and illuminate the partial, contradictory, and strategic character of contemporary identities, Donna Haraway (1991)
proposed the hybrid figure of the cyborg, as a novel and powerful metaphor that allows for the exploration of
complex subjectivities and innovative political projects.

Similarly, but from a different place of enunciation, postcolonial feminist Chandra Mohanty (1988) dissected the
analytic and methodological ethnocentrism of many feminist theorizations of Third World women, tracing the
orientalist, racist, and colonialist character of their representations in Western discourses. Characterized as
absolute victims of patriarchal ideology embedded in their cultures, Third World women were positioned as the
presumed counterpart of Western women, construed as secular and liberated, and owners of their social destinies.
Postcolonial feminist scholars emphasized that caricatures of Third World women were not just wrong; they
circulated an orientalist logic that justified the superiority of Western women and culture, legitimating Western
determination of what is normal or abnormal, oppressive or liberating for particular women (Minh-ha 1989). Drawing
parallels between orientalism and discursive colonization, Trinh Minh-ha (1987) called attention to the
devaluation of creative work produced by women of color, either by disregarding their claims about race and
sex or by reading their works only in relation to race and ethnicity. Within this discursive colonization, those who

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do not embody the norm cannot represent themselves.

Feminists of the global South noted early on the importance of producing concepts independent of European
theoretical paradigms that were anchored to local realities. The central theses of Oyrnk Oywms work
(1997), for example, are that gender does not function in an exactly the same way in every culture and that
theoretical postulates of Euro-American feminism are inadequate to analyze African cultures. Oywm based her
argument on her analysis of the Yoruba language and society, suggesting that social hierarchies were grounded in
seniority rather than gender. According to Oywm, Yoruba is not a gendered language, but it does organize
terms in relation to seniority. Reflecting the language that organizes social relations, Yoruba social institutions and
practices do not make social distinctions based on sex, nor do they determine positions or status based on
anatomical differences. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (2003) raised several questions about Oywms arguments:
interrogating her assumption that words in the Yoruba language have always had the same meaning; and
challenging her claim that seniority was the only dimension of power for overlooking how seniority intersects with
other power dynamics. Indeed, Bakare-Yusuf suggested that Oywms conclusion that Yoruba women and men
have the same power and opportunities because the Yoruba language does not make hierarchical gender
distinctions, but only recognizes anatomical difference, confuses language and social reality. Despite these faults,
Oywm made a powerful case for the necessity of generating concepts appropriate to particular African
contexts, rather than relying on distorting European concepts such as the nuclear family to interpret African
experience. Oywm also drew attention to other forms of recognition that can be more important than gender in
structuring oppressive relations in non-Western societies (Bakare-Yusuf 2003, 4).

By analyzing gender on the basis of experiences of women racialized as black in North America, Hazel Carby
(1987) and Hortense Spillers (1987) questioned theories such as Rubins (1975) that linked the oppression of
women to institutions of kinship and discourses of femininity defined in relation to marriage. Carby (1987) argued
that black women had not been constituted as women in the same way that white women had, because the
institution of slavery excluded them from culture and from the institution of marriage. As Carby noted, black
women were sexually marked as femal(animals), but not as women (potential wives who could carry a last name).
In that sense, while white women were exchanged in a sex/gender system that oppressed them, the institution of
slavery produced distinctive groups of people (black women and men), defined as the alienable property of white
men (and women). Given the specific modes of sexual oppression experienced by African American women,
Spillers (1987) suggested that it was imperative that black women construct alternative discourses of femininity,
reclaim the authority to represent themselves, and to constitute themselves as subjects.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Rita Segato (2003) and Gloria Wekker (1997) have shown that African
American religions do not rigidly separate the masculine from the feminine, or gender and sexuality from biology,
as envisioned within dominant ideologies. Investigating the gender characteristics of the orixs, Segato
emphasizes their independence from both anatomical sex and from the sexual preferences of the participants of
the cult. According to Segato, relationships between orixs9 challenge the principles upon which Brazilian society
bases the constitution of the family and displace marriage and blood kinship [ ] from the central position they
occupy in the framework of the dominant ideology (190).

Wekkers research in Surinam and Segatos in Brazil question the Western vision of the sexes as discrete units and
opposed binary pairs, suggesting that that the two-sex model is not an unquestionable truth but a cultural
peculiarity (Castellanos Llanos 2006, 17). These studies also emphasize that experiences of African American
women of the popular classes challenge the normative matrix of compulsory heterosexuality, which allocates
reproductive, material, and symbolic resources only when congruent with heteronormativity.

Their analyses reveal the importance of the experience of slavery on African populations in America, exploring its
effects on biological and social reproduction, relations of gender and kinship, and patterns of social practice and
individual behavior. Within these particular conditions, religious practices emerged that erased normative
boundaries of gender and sexuality and modified consciousness concerning the behaviors of men and women in
the cultural plane and the expectations about their role in the social plane (Segato 2003, 210). This scholarship
makes clear that situations of slavery (and intense poverty, as in the case described by Wekker in Surinam) must
be analyzed not only as evidence of trauma but also as spaces that make a virtue of necessity, encouraging
forms of sexuality repressed by the traditional kinship systems and reformulating cognitive categories related to
gender and sexuality.

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Gender in Critiques of Hegemonic Feminism

Gayatri Spivak called attention to the weaknesses of positions that attempt to understand the oppression that
women of color have experienced within the global political and economic framework of First World imperialism
without realizing that women as a unitary category cannot hold, cannot describe, that this category must undergo
crisis and expose its fractures to public discourse (Butler 2003, 81). For Spivak, representing the voices of
women deprived of rights involves an inherent risk; no matter how well intentioned, this representation
reproduces the condescending attitude of the colonizer. Although Spivak (1985) opposed the pretense of
constructing a unitary category women, she also noted the political importance of making strategic use of
essentialist notions like women. As a tactic consciously used to mobilize women to press for social change,
strategic essentialism challenges postmodern relativist positions, which are determined to dissolve identitarian
categories perceived as essentialist. The risk of essentialism can be worth taking if it is framed from the vantage
point of those who have been oppressed (Spivak 1987).

Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty have questioned seemingly inclusive feminist proposals, such as those of
international feminism; and they have criticized pluralist conceptions of difference in which women in the Third
World bear the disproportionate burden of difference (Alexander and Mohanty 1997, xviii). A global sisterhood
cannot have as a premise a center/periphery model where women of color or Third World women constitute the
periphery (Alexander and Mohanty 1997, xviii). Alexander and Mohanty draw attention to hierarchical strains of
Western feminism to develop a comparative and relational feminist praxis that is transnational in its response to the
contemporary crisis of global capitalism.

Drawing insights from Marxism, feminism, and black nationalism, Black feminism has developed numerous critiques
of accounts of gender in canonical US feminism (Davis 1981; hooks 1981; Lorde 1984; Hill Collins 1990). The
question posed in the mid-nineteenth century by Sojourner Truth, Aint I a woman? was deployed by the Black
feminist militants to reclaim and deconstruct the identity of woman. They developed a double critique of white
feminism that was not sensitive to the specificities of intersecting racial, gender, and sexual oppressions and of
black movements that devalued black womens contributions (Hull et al. 1982; hooks 1981). From a critique of the
patriarchal institutions from which they were excluded, black feminism redefined its own historical tradition, linking it
to struggles of pioneer women in the Black movement and differentiating it from the theories of gender born of
Beauvoirs thesis, one is not born but becomes a woman (hooks 1981).

In addition to challenging conceptualizations of gender and woman, feminists of color theorized new collective
political identities. In pathbreaking works such as This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga and Anzada 1981), Asian
American, African American, indigenous, and Latina feminists living in the United States reclaimed identities rooted
in the borderlands, outside the founding myth of original totality or the unitary subject constructed within the binary
categories of modernity (Anzalda 1987). Their interstitial experiences gave rise to a model of political identity that
Chela Sandoval (1991) called oppositional consciousness, cultivated by those who do not have a stable
membership in the categories of race, sex, or class and who learn to read the webs of power in a trenchant way.

Parallel to the concerns of feminisms of color, Latin American feminisms strove to understand the specificities of the
interrelations among gender, class, and race in the region. In Brazil, since the 1960s, black activists and
intellectuals have addressed the specific problematics of black women and of Brazilian sexism and racism (Barroso
and Costa 1983; Carneiro 2005; Werneck 2007). In the Caribbean, the works of Breny Mendoza (2001), Yuderkys
Espinosa Mioso (2007) and Ochy Curiel (2013) have centered the Latin American debate around the question of
compulsory heterosexuality as a social institution, and its effects on the dependence of women as a social class,
on national identity and citizenship, and on the tale of mestizaje as the foundation of national narratives.

In the last two decades, analyses of coloniality have illuminated the material and historical diversity of Latin
American and Caribbean women while also making explicit the complicity of hegemonic feminisms in ongoing
oppression (Surez-Navaz and Hernndez Castillo 2008; Bidaseca, Vzquez and Espinosa 2011).10 Authors, such
as Mara Lugones (2008a, 2008b), for example, have developed the concept of the coloniality of power
theoretically and politically,11 integrating it in a critical way into their feminist and gender analyses. For Lugones,
this meant making visible the binary logic of modern colonial thought, which operates in categorizations of race,
gender, sexuality, and class, and complicating the theory of coloniality by attending to gender and sexuality.
Lugones (2008a, 2008b) analyzed forms of subordination and dispossession suffered by nonwhite colonized

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women, which entailed a level of dehumanization that placed them beyond colonizers definition of the human.
According to Lugones, persistent dehumanization remains the condition of possibility for colonial and neocolonial
systems to the present day.

Within the framework of this colonial logic, the colonized woman has a sex as all nonhuman females do, but does
not have a genderthe exclusive mark of the civilized (Lugones 2010). As constituted by the coloniality of
power, indigenous and enslaved women are not women in the sense posed by Sojourner Truths pressing question
Aint I a woman?. From Lugones perspective, gender is a category that emerged as part of the European
epistemic matrix to account for the particular oppression suffered by Western white women, particularly those who
did not belong to the working class. To decolonize gender, then, requires reconfiguring the category to include
experiences of both oppression and resistance of those women who were colonized not only by the northern
European empires of the nineteenth century but also by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores at the end of
the fifteenth century. Lugoness theory (2010) includes a dimension absent in Quijanos (2002) conceptualization
of the coloniality of power: resistance developed by those who have been the object of oppression (on the
grounds of gender, race, class, or sexuality). For Lugones, resistance is not a function of the hybrid identities of
groups or individuals, but the result of multiple possibilities that grow from strategic political alliances informed by
shared oppositional consciousness, as Sandoval suggested (1991).

Gender: Still a Useful Category in the Era of Globocentrism?

Debates sparked by dissident feminisms have made important contributions to gender theory, critiquing the implicit
universal and Eurocentric character of this category; and generating suitable analytical tools to account for the
coloniality of power, a dimension absent from North American and European postmodern feminist thought. Although
coloniality illuminates certain continuities of global power since the fifteenth century, particularly in relation to
racialization and dehumanization, global power relations have also changed, and it is now necessary to
understand gender in the era of transnational corporations, the Internet and global neoliberal politics (Connell
2014, 12). New formations of global power link dominant centers with subordinated peripheries and metropolitan
with peripheral elites, while also redefining the relation between Occidente and its others. Fernando Coronil
(2000) has labeled this change, a shift from Eurocentrism to globocentrism.

The rhetoric of the free market masks both the inseparability of capitalism from the political project of colonialism,
and how Occidente, deterritorialized as multinational corporations and international financial institutions, continues
to depend on the subjugation of occidental populations and nature. Neoliberal globalizations effects on gender are
multiple and contradictory. Despite positive aspects associated with discourses that promote diversity and respect
for human rights, divisions have deepened between the privileged and less-favored groups in regard to gender,
class, and race. Gender coordinates of the contemporary world are defined by phenomena as diverse as the
masculinization of work culture in transnational and multinational corporations (Connell 2014); the gender and
racial asymmetries that cyberspace produces and reproduces; the larger participation of women in maquiladoras
and call centers, proximity services, and care work (Hochschild 2003); the reproduction of violence by men in
arms (Falquet 2008) and the femicides in contexts marked by drug trafficking, paramilitarism, and corruption. All
these phenomena deserve more systematic analysis and enhanced political interventions to address their effects.

Feminist epistemologies of the South (Mendoza 2010), anchored in diverse theorizations and experiences of
women of the global South, contribute greatly both to understanding these dynamics and to resisting global gender
power. To extend their reach requires wide ranging comparative studies to investigate how gender relations are
made and unmade in the neoliberal globalized world, and transnational feminist praxis that makes possible
coalitions and alliances to transform the spaces that global capitalism opens and closes.

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Notes:

(1) It is important to note that the periodization of feminism into three waves has been widely questioned due to its
aspiration to homogenize, in a single hegemonic narrative, the trajectories that feminism has followed in different
geopolitical contexts.

(2 ) It is worth noting the reluctance caused by the polysemy of the word gender in French and other Latin
languages, such as Spanish (Lamas 1996).

(3 ) In the United States, Catharine MacKinnon (1982, 515) suggested that sexuality is to feminism what work is to
Marxism, excluding work from feminist reflection, which according to her should primordially focus on how the
organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman.

(4 ) On this point, Marta Lamas (1996) criticizes Scott, arguing that she confuses gender identity, which refers to the
social identities of people as women or men, and sexual identity, an unconscious structure that constructs
the imaginary of what means to be a woman or a man.

(5) In Latin America, a gender perspective only gains strength in the social and academic feminist world in the
1990s (Lamas, 1999).
6

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(6 ) In Latin America a minoritarian but active sector of masculinity researchers has positioned itself as feminist
and has oriented its academic work towards the goal of transforming gender relations (Valds, 2007, 62).

(7 ) Thinkers like Fausto-Sterling (2000b), Haraway (1991) and Harding (2010) demonstrated that biological
knowledge is neither neutral nor objective, but marked by the influence of gender on those who produce it as well
as on how they produce it; they also showed that debates about the biology of bodies are always intensely political
and ethical.

(8 ) When the category woman is considered representative of an ensemble of values and dispositions, it
becomes normative in character and, therefore, exclusionary in principle (Butler, 1990b: 325).

(9 ) A spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of Olodumare (God) in the Yoruba spiritual or religious
system.

(10 ) Within Latin American Indigenous womens organizations, in their vast diversity, there have been two
processes: a questioning of visions rooted in tradition and culture around models of being a woman and a
gradual appropriation of a rights discourse to defend themselves against social exclusions and gender violences
(Sierra, 2013, 253). However, it should not be ignored that genderas a concept and as a political categoryand
feminism have been received with reluctance by various organizations that prefer to talk about women, privilege
the struggles waged in conjunction with the men of their community and even explicitly detach themselves from
feminism (Berro, 2008).

(11) This concept, coined by Anbal Quijano (2000), refers to a historically specific pattern of power, based on the
production of a mode of classification and hierarchization in terms of what today we refer to as race, that was
developed for the first time in Latin America just over five hundred years ago and has since become its inextricable
foundational trait.

Mara Viveros Vigoya


Mara Viveros Vigoya, Universidad Nacional de Colombia

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