A bottom-up view of gender

The heated and sometimes vicious debate between some trans activists and a subset of radical feminists who deny that trans women are women (TERFs) has widened to include other feminists who I wouldn’t have previously thought of as radicals (such as Caroline Criado-Perez. One of the issues is that trans thinkers are using the term “gender” in a different way from that normally used in mainstream women’s studies (and the way in which I’d previously used it in my own research). But I’ve just come across a couple of useful pieces by the historical researcher Cristan Williams that suggest to me how this new way of conceptualising gender might fit with previous models, but also expand them usefully.

The two pieces are Contextualizing the Body and Critical of “Gender Critical”. “Contextualizing the Body” is arguing that gender is the “labelling of and inevitable contextualization of sex attributes”. Williams defines “contextualization” as “the process of organizing data as being situationally and functionally interconnected to other concepts”. She uses the analogy of the difference between a sound (a physical phenomenon) and our understanding of that sound.

In other words, someone being identified as “male” or “female” is a mental creation. I’ve always been unhappy with this idea of biological sex as created since I came across it in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. But Williams’ take is interesting, because in “Critical of “Gender Critical””, she is arguing that while gender is constructed, it is also inevitable that this construction happens:

In its simplest form, gender arises from the mind’s inherent and unending instinct to note that A is like B and C while being different than X, which is itself like Y and Z. For gender to truly abolished, this hard-wired mental process must not exist


In Butler, gender is imposed on people as a form of power and those, like her, who argue for biological sex as a created concept tend to see it as some kind of wicked medical conspiracy against innocent babies. But actually, it’s one of several obvious distinctions that can be used to divide humans up into groups (if not 100% accurately) and it’s therefore a very common way to categorise humans in all societies.

Williams goes on:

Since this process [categorisation] exists as a relational state within the mind, each person’s subjective experience will be, in some ways, at least somewhat unique. These unique perspectives will inevitably invite discourse, giving rise to collective norms and taboos which become cultural systems influencing human behavior to one degree or another.

Williams therefore has a three level model: sex attributes, individual-mind gender (what I’ve also seen trans theory describe as “gender identity”) and society-wide gender norms/rules. And she sees gender as operating bottom-up (apologies for the double entendre), with individual ideas of gender feeding into collective ones. In contrast, traditional theories of gender see it as socially-constructed, but in a top-down way. Society (especially patriarchal society) imposes gender on (pre-existing) males and females, often coercively. This gender imposition then has subjective effects on individuals, who may internalize such gender norms.

When you think of it in those terms, these two different views of how gender are produced have immediate parallels to the unending sociological debates on the relationship of individuals to society: do individuals create society or does society create individuals? Different authors have different perspectives, on this question, but there are also productive theories about structuration, the dual role of agents and social structures in the creation and maintenance of systems. Such theories can include power relations and hierarchies within society, but without removing all agency from individuals.

What’s more, historians of gender as socially constructed have often accepted that there is a subjective side to this construction, that there is a complex individual response to how society’s ideas about masculinity and femininity affect them. Michael Roper, for example has written about this and so have other historians of masculinity. There are all sorts of practical difficulties for historians in recovering past subjectivities, but that’s our problem, not a problem with the model.

In other words, there’s room in existing gender theories for a third level which is intermediate between bodies and society, which goes beyond simple internalization of social norms and which might correspond to trans theory’s “gender identity”. The current problem, however, is that because this third level is so subjective, it’s quite hard to understand how another person might imagine it in a very different way from you. I suspect trans people underestimate how difficult a process “gender identity” is for cis people: “gender conforming”, which is commonly used to describe non-trans people, isn’t a helpful phrase (although Williams doesn’t use it in her series of articles). One useful idea that Judith Butler did come up with is about gender as being a performance and I think for a lot of cis women (and for some cis men) it isn’t an easy performance. It took a long time for me, for example, to learn to cope with being an unfeminine woman.

But cis people rarely experience the extreme gender dysphoria that’s common for trans people: the sense that the gender to which society has assigned them is completely unliveable for them, is wrong in some fundamental way. To go back to the metaphor of gender as performance, it’s not just that you’ve been miscast in the part you’re expected to play, as a lot of cis girls and women feel. It’s presumably more that you don’t want to be in this kind of play to start with. I didn’t want to share in the kind of femininity that my mother tried to inculcate me in, but I’ve found forms of womanhood that are acceptable to me. The ability to do that, to fit within my “own” gender to that extent, is an advantage that I have, even if it now seems so natural to me that I don’t recognise it as an advantage.

So part of the challenge is to find terms and descriptions for this interaction of bodies and society within one’s own mind that reflect the complexities of what’s going on within both cis and trans people. I’m not sure “gender identity” works as a term and possibly we need several terms. But thinking of gender as both bottom-up and top-down potentially allows us both to understand people’s experiences more clearly and also to work towards changing harmful gender norms.

Firstly, trans people’s experience suggest that individual-mind gender is not determined by a combination of sex attributes and social gender norms. A child with a penis surrounded by people telling it that it is a boy can nevertheless have an individual-mind conviction that she is female. Equally, he can have an individual-mind conviction that he is male (or even a different non-binary individual-mind view). Radical feminist thought tends to focus on social structures of oppression to the exclusion of individuals. But thinking about gender as created bottom-up suggests that if you can change the individual-mind gender and the gender performance of enough individuals, you can start to change the gender norms of the society they create.

But a bottom-up theory of gender also suggests that the scheme of “abolishing gender”, which some activists call for, isn’t likely to happen. Individuals are going to have an understanding of what “men” are like and what “women” are like, because that’s the way our minds function, to spot patterns. Enough of those understandings are likely to be common for some social ideas of gender to develop, even if not necessarily the ones we currently have.

For an analogy, it’s useful to look at social constructions of age and the elderly. Ageing is a biological fact, although there’s no clear dividing line between who counts as “old” and who doesn’t, and it varies greatly between societies depending on nutrition and healthcare availability. And in social situations, other people’s age is normally “read” from their appearance and behaviour: you rarely get to check someone’s birth certificate. There are societies in which the old are valued as wise and others in which they’re denigrated: the power relations aren’t simply one way round. But I’m not aware of any societies where age has been “abolished”, or where there aren’t age-related expectations and norms.

In the same way, gender is always going to exist: as Cristan Williams points out, we’re hard-wired to make such distinctions. But I’d argue that acknowledging gender as bottom-up as well as top-down gives us another possible set of tools for changing oppressive gender stereotypes and ones which it’s worth all feminists trying to use.


8 thoughts on “A bottom-up view of gender

  1. Butler – “In its simplest form, gender arises from the mind’s inherent and unending instinct to note that A is like B and C while being different than X, which is itself like Y and Z. For gender to truly abolished, this hard-wired mental process must not exist”

    i.e. ‘gender’ (I assume, not with total confidence, that you’re using the word in its recent meaning i.e. a synonym for ‘sex’) arises from the human tendency to notice things, including patterns – and surprise surprise, the patterns are underpinned by biology.

    (to be fair, noticing this particular pattern isn’t unique to humans. I don’t doubt that my chickens are able to tell what’s a hen and what’s a cockerel)


    • The definition that Cristan Williams gives for gender, which I cite above, is the “labelling of and inevitable contextualization of sex attributes”. However, the difference between humans and chickens is that in day to day life we don’t just use biological factors to label people. I doubt very much whether you’ve actually observed the penis of most people you refer to as male and even secondary sexual characteristics can be deceptive. I’m biologically female enough to have given birth, but I’m still sometimes mistaken as male in brief social encounters, especially if I’m wearing bulky winter clothing.

      The other question is whether once you’ve identified differences and similarities, which you decide are significant. My daughter has white skin and brown hair. One of her best friends at primary school was a girl with brown skin and black hair, the other was a boy with white skin and red hair. She could decide she’s more like the girl (shared sex), like the boy (shared skin colour), like neither (different hair colour to both) or like both (all going to the same school). Humans are able to create meanings in that way, so if I decide that I have more in common with a Kenyan Christian man than with a British atheist woman, that is my choice.


      • “in day to day life we don’t just use biological factors to label people”

        Well we do, in that

        a) penis or vagina is only one of many biological cues (e.g. shape, foot size, Adam’s apple, musculature) we can use

        b) the biological factors underpin many of the other behaviours we observe and label by – including choice of dress. The fact that the occasional mistake is made (my short-haired wife was once hit in the face by the angry boyfriend of a girl who was crying on a Tube platform – she’d gone to see if she was OK. He was mortified when he realised) doesn’t invalidate that.

        Have you read Pinker’s The Blank Slate? Worth buying – a fascinating book and beautifully written.


        And while it’s true that humans create their own meanings, it’s likely that the meanings which ‘stick’ i.e. are common to all human societies and constitute “human universals”, are rooted in our biology as adapted by millenia of evolution and experience.

        One thought on yesterdays debate – in the very long run the most successful society is measured in a combination of boots on the ground and the ability either to keep those boots comfortably there or for those boots to find new places to live in. The missing children of the infertile, for an extreme example, do not inherit the earth.

        The most rapidly-increasing communities in the UK are both highly patriarchal and strongly negative about all the advances you mentioned. Just take a run up the road to Stamford Hill or east to Bethnal Green. You’ll see a lot of pushchairs but very few chaps holding hands !


      • I feel we may be talking at cross-purposes here. Cristan Williams, who is a trans woman, is arguing against essentialism: that one’s sex is purely a matter of what genitals you’ve got and that therefore Cristan cannot be accepted as a woman (a view held by some feminists as well as some conservatives). But she’s also saying that assigning meanings to different combinations of genitals/sexual secondary characteristics is hard-wired in us: we can’t get rid of gendered assumptions, as some feminists want to do.

        My interest as a historian of gender (focussing on medieval Europe) is that a lot of these gendered assumptions are society-specific, however “natural” they may appear to us. For example, from the eighteenth century in Europe it was stated by scientists that men are naturally more lustful than women. However, before the eighteenth century in Europe it was stated by scientists that women are naturally more lustful than men. In other words, there’s been a complete switch round in the “science”. So one of the things that historians and anthropologists tend to start doing every time someone says a behaviour or a rule is natural is look for societies in the present or past that haven’t worked in that way.

        In particular, we should take any claims from evolutionary psychology with a large pinch of salt, because so much of it is just very badly done. See, for example, Ben Goldacre giving an elegant demonstration of why EP views on pink v blue preferences are rubbish.


      • Re Goldacre, pink v blue is a very poor example – it’s not a human universal (as a medieval historian I’m sure you’ll have noticed the inevitable colour of the Virgin Mary’s gear in nearly all depictions)- and we can always find a poorly done study. Not sure that can invalidate a whole field. For example, because Stephen Jay Gould couldn’t measure skulls that doesn’t invalidate all of paleontology.

        I’d agree that a lot of assumptions full-stop are society-specific, gendered or no. And science/medicine is as subject to fashion as any other area. Fifty years ago we were advised for our health to drop pasta and potatoes (‘starch’) from our diet and eat dairy products and eggs, now the advice is nearly the reverse. Homosexuality was then considered a mental disorder, and we’re now not too far from the point where ‘homophobia’ will be similarly classified.

        Your point re historic views of female sexuality is an interesting one – as I understand it ev psych can support both views, depending on the social forces. It may be that by the eighteenth century female expression of hypergamy * had been so thoroughly repressed, and monogamy so rigidly enforced, that it could be effectively ignored, whereas those living in earlier and more turbulent times simply couldn’t ignore it. That would be an interesting area of enquiry.

        * Roy Baumeister : “The first big, basic difference has to do with what I consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this question: What percent of our ancestors were women?

        It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children.

        Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.

        I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.”


      • The problem is that too many evolutionary psychology articles are poor quality. They test hypotheses on a small subset in one culture and then generalise to the whole of humanity. Or they don’t think hard enough about alternative explanations. Or they hand-wave away or ignore evidence that doesn’t support their thesis. Take another recent article that summarises a lot of EP research on rape: McKibbin, et al, Why Do Men Rape? An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. I’m citing this because it’s publicly available on the web, but in a respected journal). Its first citation is to an article by Peggy Reeves Sanday, which it completes misrepresents: Sanday, P. R. (1981). The socio-cultural context of rape: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 5–27. (I’m not sure that article’s freely available on the web, unfortunately). Sanday, an anthropologist, shows that there are “rape-prone” and “rape-free” societies: there are some cultures in which rape is very rare. That immediately suggests a large cultural component to rape, which McKibbin et al completely ignore.

        That’s not the only thing McKibbin et al completely ignore. They have a section on “women’s defenses against rape” which summarizes some studies on this. None of these studies discuss whether women who give birth to children as the result of rape subsequently rear them (or abandon or kill them). One key thing distinguishing humans from other animals is the prolonged helplessness of their young. The entire hypothesis that rape conveys an evolutionary advantage relies on the reproduction of a rapist’s genes down the generations and yet none of the studies this paper cites have bothered to look at that question. That’s inexcusably sloppy science.

        And again, if EP can explain away everything, it explains nothing. You would need to show that in eighteenth century Europe female hypergamy was repressed in a way that it hadn’t been in previous centuries. You need actual hard data rather than hypotheses. As for the argument on your blog about rigidly enforced monogamy as the solution to differing wishes of hunter-gather men and women, that completely ignores the fact that monogamy is a historically and geographically specific solution. I’ve discussed this before as well. There are lots of small-scale societies where such monogamy still isn’t the rule.

        I haven’t read Stephen Pinker – I haven’t got time at the moment. I don’t, for what it’s worth, believe in a blank slate. But I think that any suggestions that some human characteristics are innate have to be subject to maximum scrutiny, given how many and varied human societies are and how plastic human brains are. And again, just to make one obvious point. Stephen Pinker has no children: he is rich and successful, he has married several times, but his genes are going nowhere. Whereas you’d probably consider my husband a beta male, but he’s reproduced. If Stephen Pinker can completely suppress his evolutionary drive to reproduce, I don’t see that natural instincts tell us much about what people actually decide to do.


  2. I’d recommend Pinker for pleasure as well as profit – he’s amazingly easy to read for an academic.

    “They test hypotheses on a small subset in one culture and then generalise to the whole of humanity”

    This cuts both ways. Is Peggy Reeves Sanday cherry-picking her “rape-free” societies? (I assume she’s not doing Margaret Mead-style misrepresentation). I don’t pretend to have read the literature on rape (though aware of Randy Thornhill’s thesis), but it’s a large historical topic – where does rape end and wife-stealing / sex slavery begin? From the Crow Creek Massacre or Viking raids on Ireland (isn’t 50% of Icelandic mitochondrial DNA from Ireland/West Scotland?) via the Great Khan to Boko Haram or Islamic State today, it’s likely that a very large number of children have resulted from sex where the woman didn’t have much option when it came to consent (and I doubt that many of them had the option of infanticide without suffering severe sanction). The Great Khan is an extreme example of Roy Beaumeister’s observation that most men didn’t reproduce but a few hit the jackpot.

    On hypergamy and the view of female sexuality post-1800, I was airing a fancy, not submitting a doctoral thesis. That’s why I said it would be interesting to look at.

    On rigidly enforced monogamy, I’ve never said it existed in hunter-gatherer days (agnostic on that due to lack of knowledge, though I think it highly likely that in a pre-agrarian world without fixed property we would be much more equal generally – the lost feminist Eden before patriarchy may well be the pre-agrarian world, although existing hunter-gatherer societies mostly seem to be pretty violent (see Keeley’s War Before Civilisation)). But even as far back as the Romans, the German tribes were strictly monogamous if Tacitus is any guide. My view is that monogamy served our society pretty well for the last two millennia.

    As for Mr Pinker, you have to look at the big picture, although individuals are good as examples. Mr Pinker’s certainly not alone in being intelligent, successful and childless (although I do think it a pity – in fact I have a whole series of posts on this theme). I’m just pleased to know that some bright women (and their husbands) are reproducing (and having discovered your blog, there’s lots of interesting stuff to read there, too).

    One last pointette – IIRC you described yourself as a socialist on that Chris Dillow thread. You’ve also listed the “social advances”, as you see them, of the last decades. The “left” isn’t horny handed sons of toil these days – it’s college lecturers and students – or even finance types like Chris Dillow and Daniel Davies. I don’t think Professor Callinicos lies awake at night worrying about being sacked for his “radical” views, do you?

    The post-68 Left social agenda has almost completely triumphed in the UK – witness Cameron joining Hope Not Hate and campaigning for gay marriage.

    At the same time the Left economic agenda has been so utterly defeated that terms and conditions for the average worker are being driven down remorselessly – even as total remuneration for the top few percent accelerates into the distance. Gone are the days, less than forty years ago, when a working man could buy a house and raise a family on one income.

    Don’t any of the educated left wonder why this might be? So much success in one sphere, so little in another? Why, it’s almost as if there’s an inverse relationship between the two!


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