This past weekend was a busy one for those of us who travelled to Denver, CO for the annual American Sociological Association meeting. As usual, the conference was replete with interesting and insightful research projects. But this year’s theme, “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures,” inspired conversations far more philosophical and theoretical than social scientists might have expected. I had the pleasure of attending one such panel—“A World Beyond Gender,” with Barbara Jane Risman, Judith Lorber, and Michael Kimmel as presider (Jessica Holden Sherwood contributed to the paper but wasn’t in attendance). Beginning from a simple but radical premise—that “only a world beyond gender will be a just world” (p4)—the authors attempted to envision how we might achieve an equal world, where gender no longer structures individual experiences, interactions, or social institutions.
A lofty and laudable goal, and one which even the authors admitted is a long way off. The authors noted a number of trends, however, that seem to indicate that change is possible. Changes in the socialization of girls that promote their athleticism, leadership, participation in science and math are heartening, though they have not been accompanied by similar changes in the socialization of boys; that is, while girls may be encouraged to enter traditionally “masculine” spheres, boys are not taught to value what is typically viewed as “feminine.” Rising challenges to the norm of heterosexual marriage, both from those who choose to remain single rather than enter into unequal relationships and from the LGBT community demanding legal access to the institution of marriage, suggest a dissatisfaction with the current gender regime. The authors also pointed to genderqueer and trans movements, which defy binary conceptions of sex/gender. There is room for change if only we’d seize it.
They even provided some strategies. We must resist pressures to socialize our children into gender and refuse to conform to the roles into which we have been socialized. We must create and enforce gender-neutral institutional policies and place equal value on both economic and care work. We need to stop expecting proper gender performances and encourage – rather than stigmatize – non-normative ways of being. We must reconceive the meaning of motherhood. Easy, right? Not at all, but the most worthwhile endeavors are often the most difficult.
Michael Kimmel’s response to the paper was equally provocative. Drawing on his own participation in the men’s anti-violence movement, he asked if we need to do away with gender entirely. Ideas about gender can be mobilized effectively for social change. One of the best ways he found to get men to take a stand against IPV and sexual violence was to draw on seemingly “masculine” values of honor and valor. The paper authors had suggested that men who don’t participate equally in caregiving ought to be shamed for their moral failure, but Kimmel argued that he has never found men (or people, really) to respond positively to shaming. Instead, perhaps, we should turn to positive, not negative, reinforcement, and mobilize some aspects of gender for good. (I should note that Kimmel was trying to incite debate and clearly shares the authors’ goal of a more just world.)
All of this got me thinking—how do we balance short-term activist strategies with long-term emancipatory projects? If one of our most effective tools for combatting men’s violence against women is to draw men in through appeals to virtuous manhood, is it possible to stop violence and work toward a degendered society? Another example. The current reality is that women still make less money, have fewer educational and occupational resources, and have less mobility than men. But policies that encourage companies to hire women do so on the basis of gender, thus reinforcing, to some extent, our current gender system. So can we raise women’s educational/occupational status and still advance toward our ultimate goal? Can we improve this lifetime without limiting our possible futures?