Episode 46

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, by Judith Butler

Published on: 24th August, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Thus far on Breaking Down Patriarchy, we’ve talked a lot about how the system of patriarchy has impacted women, but we haven’t talked much about what it means to be a woman. Simone de Beauvoir famously said “one is not born, but becomes, woman,” and we talked about the concept that sex is biological and gender is social, or put another way “sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears.” But today we’re going to discuss a groundbreaking text that called those assertions into question and paved the way for queer theory. It’s Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, written in 1990, and I’m so happy to have the brilliant and very experienced Maxine Hanks here to discuss it with us! Thanks so much for being here again, Maxine.

Maxine:  It’s always fun to discuss books with you, I love your podcast.   I’ve been looking forward to discussing Gender Trouble, it’s a major feminist work that changed the landscape of feminist theory and gender studies.   I was majoring in women’s studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s when this book came out, so it loomed large in our program, and reading list, shaping feminist theory courses at the U.U.  I found it really challenging yet invigorating then, and it has continued to be both since, along with Butler’s subsequent works. 

Amy:  This book was recommended to me by you, Maxine, and once you mentioned it I started seeing it referenced everywhere, including by my friend Matthew, who will be doing our episodes on LGBTQ history and queer theory, and told me I had to read Gender Trouble as a primer. :) So I’m very glad we added it to the reading list! Although I must say it’s pretty dense and academic and jargon-y, so most listeners will probably appreciate the summary, rather than reading the whole thing. It’s definitely a text you would read in a grad school course on gender theory - not something you would take on vacation. So we’ll really appreciate your experience having taught this book!

I’ll start us off with a brief intro of the author, and then I’d love it if you could provide some context and framing before we start sharing passages of the book.

I’ll note that Judith Butler is legally nonbinary, and Butler goes by both she/hers and they pronouns. In sharing her bio right now I’m choosing to use “they” pronouns, and I’m going to be completely honest and a little vulnerable in sharing that because I was raised in the time and place I was, and because I don’t have any nonbinary friends, it feels very new to me and thus outside my comfort zone to use “they” pronouns. So while Judith Butler would be ok with “she/her” pronouns, I am going to use “they/their” so that when I meet nonbinary people in the future I will have some practice. During the rest of the episode I might revert to she/her, but I want to be clear that if Judith Butler said “please use ‘they’ then I would use ‘they’ the whole time.

Judith Pamela Butler was born in 1956, in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family of Hungarian-Jewish and Russian-Jewish descent. Most of their maternal grandmother's family perished in the Holocaust. Butler's parents were practicing Reform Jews; their mother was raised Orthodox, eventually becoming Reform, while their father was raised Reform. And here I have to just have to comment again - it keeps coming up - the contribution of Jewish people to the field of philosophy and women’s studies!! And I want to point out that Reform Judaism is a major Jewish denomination that emphasizes the evolving nature of the faith, and the ethical aspects of Judaism rather than the ceremonial ones, as well as the importance of human reason and intellect. This makes sense, then, that Butler attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics, where they received their "first training in philosophy". Apparently these ethics classes were created by Judith’s Hebrew school Rabbi as a punishment because Judith was "too talkative in class".

Butler chose to attend university at Bennington College because “it seemed to be a place where, as a young queer kid, I would be okay in 1974. I knew that there were other people there who were at least minimally bisexual.” Butler says that their parents, while not always wholly comfortable with their sexuality, were ultimately accepting. Judith remembers that their  father was very happy when they came home from college with a Jewish girlfriend. So Judith attended Bennington College before transferring to Yale University, where they studied philosophy and received a BA in 1978 and a PhD in Philosophy in 1984. Butler taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University before joining University of California, Berkeley, in 1993.

So in the preface to the 1999 edition, Butler shares some of the motivations and thinking behind writing Gender Trouble, which I found really useful as I approached the book.    

First, Butler says “I sought to undersatnd some of the terror and anxiety that some people suffer in ‘becoming gay,’ the fear of losing one’s place in gender.” (xi)

Second, I found this description really helpful:

[the text] was produced not merely from the academy, but from convergent social movements of which I have been a part, and within the context of a lesbian and gay community on the east coast of the United States in which I lived for fourteen years prior to the writing of this book. Despite the dislocation of the subject that the text performs, there is a person here: I went to many meetings, bars, and marches and saw many kinds of genders. I understood myself to be at the crossroads of some of them, and encountered sexuality at several of its cultural edges. I knew many people who were trying to find their way in the midst of a significant movement for sexual recognition and freedom, and felt the exhilaration and frustration that goes along with being a part of that movement both in its hopefulness and internal dissension. At the same time that I was ensconced in the academy, I was also living a life outside those walls, and though Gender Trouble  is an academic book, it began, for me, with a crossing-over, sitting on Rehoboth Beach, wondering whether I could like the different sides of my life.” (xvii)

And finally, this passage was really striking, and I believe, important in understanding the book:

“I grew up understanding something of the violence of gender norms: an uncle incarcerated for his anatomically anomalous body, deprived of family and friends, living out his days in an ‘institute’ in the Kansas prairies; gay cousins forced to leave their homes becasue of their sexuality, real and imagined; my own tempestuos coming out at the age of 16; and a subsequent adult landscape of lost jobs, lovers, and homes. All of this subjected me to strong and scarring condemnation but, luckily, did not prevent me from pursuing pleasure and insisting on a legitimating recognition for my sexual life. It was difficult to bring this violence into view precisely because gender was so taken for granted at the same time that it was violently policed.” (xx)

“This book is written then as a part of the cultural life of a collective struggle that has had, and will continue to have, some success in increasing the possibilities for a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins.” (xxviii)

So with this introduction about Butler, and the personal questions and struggles that drove them to write the book, Maxine, could you give us some broader context about Gender Trouble and what it meant when it was published.

Maxine:  Sure.  I use the allowable “her” and “she” pronouns for Butler, even tho I’m comfortable with using they, but find it cumbersome in a conversation like this.

Gender Trouble arrived at another paradigm shift between the decades of feminism (like Sexual Politics in 1970 and Woman'sSpiritRising in 1980), as a watershed moment that shaped,  captured, even created a new horizon for feminism. GT marked the end of 2nd wave feminism

and beginning of 3rd wave feminism. To use a post-modern term, it was a "signfier" of that shift, from 2nd Wave feminism & women's studies in the 1970s-80s,  to queer theory & gender studies of 3rd wave feminism, in the 1990s to 2000s.

In her Preface to 2nd edition, Butler said she "didn't know it would constitute a provocative "intervention" in feminist theory or be cited as one of the founding texts of queer theory." 

Like the mothers of feminist theory before her, she didn't know she was the mother of a new movement or paradigm shift, she was just struggling to voice a vital new perspective.   

Her explanation is revealing: "As I wrote it, I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relationship with certain forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself."  This confession describes the crux of her work's position in relation to feminism, and also my response to her work  -- which I see as indeed oppositional to some feminisms, departing from feminism while also emerging from it. Her theories are feminist in some ways  but anti-feminist in others.

I see this paradox as both the strength and weakness of her work, and why there were mixed reactions from other feminists to her work, as well as to queer theory which arose from her work.  

2nd Wave feminism had worked hard for decades to remove sex & gender limitations for women yet also provide a needed distinction between sex identity as biologically based vs. gender identity as socially constructed or fluid. This distinction gave men, women, LGBTs, intersex and trans individuals more freedom and validation to determine and claim their own unique gender identity, sexual orientation, sex roles, and sexual identity -- regardless of their biological identity.   So the premise was that while sex is biological, gender and identity are constructed.

 Amy: Ok, let’s dive into some of her basic premises along with sharing some passages from the text! Maxine, would you like to get us started with some important concepts from the book?

Maxine:   Sure.

Butler's work was a radical departure from and deconstruction of that feminist notion of sex vs. gender as a dichotomy.  Butler argued that both gender and sex are performative as established through one's choices and behavior, so one can construct different gender and sexual identities via differing behaviors.  She proposed a notion of performative identity as the basis for gender & sexuality, asserting that both are created by behavior or performance.

“If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.  That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.”


So Butler criticized a key premise of feminist theory and practice regarding gender and sex, arguing that both gender & sex are irreducible to natural or heterosexual categories.  Her view opposed all essentialist claims about sex as natural or fixed, instead emphasizing that sex & gender are both relational, thus like all relations, they are constructed.  She asserted that no "stable gender identity" exists behind actions that seek to "express" gender, but these acts constitute an "illusion" of stable gender identity rather than a stable reality.  

“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”

Butler also insisted that power is a major factor in the formation or performance of identity.

Butler shifted the view from biological sex as natural or  essential to the view that  nothing is natural or essential --  all aspects of the body and identity are fluid, constructed by behavior, desire, performance, and power. 

Gender Trouble engaged theories from Freud and Lacan on psychological formation, de Beauvoir, Kristeva, Irigaray, and Wittig on female sex, gender and feminism, plus Derrida and Foucault on post-modern theory.  She used the work of these theorists to support her view that sex as well as gender is socially constructed.   Her conclusions became the basis for many gender studies and feminisst theory courses in the 1990s onward, which replicated her engagements and conclusions.  Even a fanzine "Judy!" celebrated her influence.

Butler critiqued the feminist differentiation between gender and sex, arguing that feminism was wrong to view "women" as a group of people who had common characteristics. She labelled that as "ahistorical" or not grounded in actual history of bodies, identity and their evolution, thus unreal.  “If there is something right in Beauvoir's claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification.”

Butler argued that feminism had reinforced the binary view of gender relations, and traditional gender roles, thus feminists should not try to define "women" as a definite category but feminists should instead "focus on....how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood in both society and within the feminist movement."   Butler dissolved the linking of sex and gender, so that gender and desire (which replaced sex as the more operative factor) can be "flexible, free floating and not caused by other stable factors."   

 Butler theorized that both gender and sex are socially-constructed, malleable, fluid, or "performative" rather than sex being fixed biologically, unmutable or "essential."  This notion of identity as entirely free and flexible performance, not essential, is one of the foundations of queer theory.

Butler was right in several ways --  that the binary of male vs. female sexed bodies doesn't always hold true.  Nearly 2% of human bodies are born with nonbinary primary or secondary sex characteristics---  atypical chromosomes or intersex reproductive organs, thus not exclusively male or female but somehwere between or both sexes. Also, half of 1% of all people identify as transgender -- and even typical male or female sexed bodies can morph from male to female or female to male, via hormone treatment and sexual reassignment surgery.   So biological sex identity, as well as gender identity, can be fluid, malleable, performative. 

Her work inspired and championed a much-needed inclusion of sex/gender fluidity, nonbinary sex & gender, queer theory, sex & gender performance, trans identities and activism as integral parts of gender studies -- thus widening women's studies and feminist theory into broader and more complex fields of gender studies and queer theory

Amy:   So what were the responses to Butler’s work?  Were they mostly positive or critical or both?

Maxine:  They were more positive than negative but energetically both.  Critics asked -- are Butler's views sound, valid arguments?  Also, do they go too far?    And does she champion true inclusion? or erasure?  

Her work moved a feminist theory away from difference feminism (that biological sex is still essential and binary in some ways while gender identity is constructed, fluid) to a gender theory that there is no essential sex so there is no binary.

“There is no reason to assume that gender ... ought to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.”

She shifted the perspective for defining identity -- away from binary bodies to nonbinary bodies, from a binary view of life to a nonbinary view.  This was powerful and needed -- so that nonbinary lives could speak as central, real, not marginal or Other or unreal.   So now, there were two conflicting central premises or perspectives from which to define bodies -- biological vs. constructed, and binary vs. nonbinary.

The nonbinary view of queer theory and trans bodies redefined sex & gender terms from its own position and perspective.  New language and labels emerged, like CisGender, which came from a nonbinary-centric view rather than a binary-centric view.  And "essentialist feminism" (which was about defending the biological realities of female sexed bodies & lives) was redefined as "gender essentialism" which is defined as imposing stereotypic traditional gender roles -- socially-constructed unreal limits of masculine and feminine onto bodies.   Essentialist feminists see that redefinition is a fallacy, that invalidates the difference feminist viewpoint (of bodies as having essential biological differences which translate into numerous social, psychological, medical and health differences that need to be recognized).   

Also, the feminist theory of intersecting identities (which included other aspects of identity like race, ethnicity, class, orientation as involved along with gender & biological sex as formative parts of one's identity) was redefined as intersectional feminism that gives all other aspects of identity equal weight with biological sex & gender, all as constructed idenitties and all equally influential -- so biological sex is not a bigger factor or more determining influence on identity than any other.  This again invalidated difference feminism.

Butler's redefinition of biological sex as fluid, constructed, peformative, nonbinary challenged centuries of feminist work that defended the biological differences, needs, realities and contributions of women's bodies as truly different from men’s yet equally valid with men’s in society and politics, and which addressed women’s oppression and suffering in society as based on those biological realities. 

Her assertion was that “Because ‘female’ no longer appears to be a stable notion, it’s meaning is as troubled and unfixed as ‘woman’ and because both terms gain their troubled significations only as relational terms... it is no longer clear that feminist theory ought to try to settle the questions of primary identity in order to get on with the task of politics.  Instead we ought to ask...What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constraints the discourse on feminist politics?”

She raises a valid point here about not relying on sex or gender “identity as a common ground” given the constructed nature of social/relational identity. Yet if this premise alone is valid, thus excluding the ways that sex and gender identity do have some common ground -- then  it refutes the basic premise of "difference feminisms" -- cultural, radical, & essentialist feminists --which was that women live in a body and circumstances that are significantly different from men's, with different perspectives, challenges, needs and realities, that must be recognized and valued, equally with those of male bodies.   

While essentialist feminists agree with constructionist feminists like Butler that most of women's disadvantages and different treatment are socially-constructed, they still assert that some of the biological differences between sexes must be recognized as real and impactful on lives--not simply because bodies and lives are socially-constructed that way, but because biology itself plays a huge role in our biochemistry, personality, and experience.  Difference feminists argue that what is needed is consideration, validation and inclusion of those biological differences rather than an erasure of those differences in the treatment of women and their reality. They says we need to give the biological female experience equal value, validity, attention, respect with the male biological experience -- for its different perspective and what that brings to life & society. 

So, there is a conflict between queer theory vs. feminist theory,  trans activism vs. feminist activism, and gender studies vs. women's studies -- regarding the role of biological sex identity and how it can be defined and by whom. It boils down to the debate over what is a woman or man? and who gets to define that identity?  Individuals themselves? Society?  the medical profession?  These tensions are seen in public conflicts between trans activists who say that individuals get to define whether they are male or female, and feminists like JK Rowling or Camilla Paglia who insist that there are some essential biological differences and bases for defining what a woman or man is-- which cannot be entirely dismissed or erased by the realities of constructed and performative identities.    Butler's work has been seen as creating or inciting this conflict -- between binary vs non-binary views of bodies and  constructed vs. essential views of biological identity and characteristics.

Personal Story -- my favorite illustration of this conflict was a moment in feminist theory class in 1989, when my two professors co-teaching the course, Kathryn Stockton and Stephanie Pace argued constructionism vs. essentialism. Kathryn said, "I don't see what essential difference a tiny flap of skin makes" (referring to the genital difference between male and female bodies).   Stephanie responded, "When I'm flat on my back on a delivery table with my feet in the stirrups, and the baby's head is crowning, it's damned essential!"

Susan Bordo (a feminist professor of gender and women’s and "body studies") says that Butler reduces gender to language, when conversely the body is a major part of gender, not a minor part, or one fragment of many intersecting realities, thus she refutes Butler's concept of gender as only performative.

Literary critic Camille Paglia agrees that gender is & can be highly performative, fluid, yet she has criticized Butler's work, queer theory and post-modernism for inadequate recognition of essential male/female, masculine/feminine aspects of bodies, lives, desire, society and culture. Paglia asserted that Butler is “no radical: She is one of the smoothest careerists...in the entire American academic system. She shrewdly adapted herself to the prevailing chic orthodoxy.”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has criticized Butler's work, not so much for its constructionist, performative view of biological sex but because Butler hasn't argued well or logically. Her article "The Professor of Parody" was a serious take-down of Butler -- as using academic jargon to make her work appear new, unique, in spite of similar work that came long before it, and as arguing premises poorly in flawed ways using obtuse language, which also doesn't relate to or address broader social, political realities, thus omits social justice, but is isolated within academia, entirely distant from lived realities of most people.

German feminist Alice Schwarzer criticizes Butler's "radical intellectual games" as not changing or solving how society classifies and treats women, because eliminating female and male identity dissolves needed discourse about sexism.

Amy:  Wow, that’s really interesting. How did Butler respond to those critics?  


Butler sees such critics as uncomfortable with "the fact that my work allows for ambiguity...My point is that many of these issues aren't resolvable."  Her1999  preface to the 2nd edition of GT defended that her "dogged effort to 'denaturalize' gender...emerges I think from a strong desire both to counter the normative violence implied by ideal morphologies of sex and to uproot the pervasive assumptions about heterosexuality ... on sexuality....this denaturalization was not done simply out of a desire to play with language or prescribe theatrical antics in the place of “real” politics..It was done from a desire to live, to make life possible, and to rethink the possible.”

Butler explained that she was "writing in the tradition of immanent critique ...to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement" She saw a need or "warrent" for such criticism and to  "distinguish between self criticism that promises a more democratic and inclusive movement and criticism that seeks to undermine it altogether."    She lamented that it is "possible to misread the former as the latter"  which she hopes "will not be done" to Gender Trouble.  

Yet this is the crux of the disagreement about her work -- whether her intent or the effect of her work truly invites "a more democratic and inclusive movement" or whether her work "undermines it [feminism] altogether."

I say her work does indeed invite a more democratic and inclusive movement -- at least, for non-binary feminists, and LGBTQIA, and nonbinary, queer and trans bodies, theories and activists---but not for binary bodies or binary biological, physical, medical attributes which she categorized as socially "assigned," contrived or imposed. And not for difference feminisms which are refuted as unrealistic and upholding traditional gender roles. Binary aspects of biology and life,  and difference feminisms are both invalidated by the notion that the binary is ureal, there is no binary, all bodies and all life is non-binary.   Butler cites "the realization that all along the original was derived.” 

That claim erases the biological realities of binary sexes, bodies, and experience. This resulted in a binary vs nonbinary conflict based on two contradictory premises competing for validity, rather than finding a larger framework that includes both.  This conflict has gotten ugly, in feminist forums and public discourse.

One young feminist lashed out at me when we were discussing essentialism vs. constructionism, and binary vs nonbinary reality.  She lost her temper and exclaimed,  "We just need all you older feminists to die, so we can finally move on with reality!!"

That confirmed for me, the erasure of essentialist feminism coming from queer theory, which perhaps has overcompensated for the erasure and destruction of queer, nonbinary bodies and lives by privileging queer reality over nonqueer reality.

My response to Butler is that I think a truly "democratic and inclusive movement" would include both queer and non-queer lives, essentialist & constructionist views, binary & nonbinary realities.  It would say that bodies are not simply or only binary, but also nonbinary as well, so we need to recognize and deal with both realities, all bodies, all qualities of bodies both nonbinary and binary, and aspects of life that are both constructed and essential, all identities both queer and non-queer.    

There was a long-overdue need to validate the reality of nonbinary  bodies, sexes, genders, and lives and end the harm to those bodies. This was vital and Butler's work established that firmly.   Yet that need can go too far if it erases the binary aspects of bodies in favor or the nonbinary aspects.  In reality, both the binary and non-binary aspects of bodies, biology, sex, gender, identity, orienation, and attraction co-exist within bodies and lives, and play themselves out, together in intersecting ways.  My intersectionalism includes binary aspects of identity as well as nonbinary aspects.

My meme -- is that a truly "democratic and inclusive movement" or true equality in society is the inclusion of difference not simply the erasure of difference.

Amy:  That is so interesting   So what would you say is your takeaway from Gender Trouble, Maxine?

Maxine: My takeaway is hope that Butler and her critics will find a common ground via a deconstruction of the binary opposition that has arisen between binary and non-binary views. The conflict that Butler’s work created actually enables us to see a larger binary opposition we hadn't seen and see its need for solution. I hope for reconciliation or inclusion of both binary and nonbinary perspectives.  Interestingly, Butler says “Destruction is thus always restoration...destruction of a set of categories that introduce artificial divisions into an otherwise unified ontology.”   So I hope for a unified ontology that includes biological sex difference rather than simply erase that difference.

What is a takeaway for you, Amy?


For me, it’s always about people. People’s ability to love and be loved, to flourish and live productive, peaceful lives. So for me I was very impacted by reading about Judith Butler’s own lived experience, and it came back to to phrases: first, the title Gender Trouble. In the introduction, Butler says that all through life we’re told by the powers that be to “not get into trouble, and by that they mean ‘don’t go off-script.” And if you do depart from that very strict script you’ll “get in trouble.” So eventually Butler realized that somebody made up that script, and that anyone whose true self doesn’t map with that script is going to “get in trouble” by not fitting inside that tiny box… so you might as well reconcile yourself that you’re going to be in trouble. So then Butler decides to “trouble” or kind of stir up or re-examine a script that was written, to use Gerda Lerner’s analogy from our very first episode, by 100% men. And they’ve historically been white men, and they’ve historically been straight men. 

Which leads me to the other point that will stick with me from Butler and that is the notion of the “heterosexual matrix.” I know what it feels like to wake up inside a matrix and realize that the structures of power do not include me as an equal or even an equitable participant. For a lot of straight, white women we know what that feels like. And we’ll talk about this more in our episodes on LGBTQ history and queer theory - we’re doing a four-part series that will air next month, centered around a few key texts - but Gender Trouble  points out the heterosexual matrix that we all live in. This can be an uncomfortable one for people who grew up in very conservative religions, so my hope is that for listeners who find this challenging, you’ll use empathy to try to step into the shoes of those who find themselves outside the matrix of “traditional” - i.e., patriarchally-constructed scripts of sex and gender. I know that for me, my feelings about trans-sexuality evolved a lot when I got a phone call from one of my closest friends whose child whom I had known since early childhood was going through a transition of sexual identity. And then just last month another very close friend of mine shared something similar, and one of Erik’s best friends also has a trans kid. And wow, when I see that up close, I realize that I definitely don’t have any answers except to learn more and to be kind.

So that’s my way of saying: if you’re LGBTQ and you listened to this, I’m sending you all the love in the world - you might want to read Gender Trouble  and see what you think. And if you’re cis-gender and straight and you listened to this, you might want to read Gender Trouble  so that you understand the issues better - and you don’t have to believe or agree with or be convinced by Judith Butler on every point! You don’t have to agree with me or Maxine on every point! But reading and researching helps us become wiser, so good for you for listening. 

Thank you, Maxine!!! Etc.

Maxine: Thank you.

Amy: On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, Maxine Hanks will be back for her third and final episode, on the anthologies WomanSpirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion from 1979 (and re-released in 1992), and its sequel Weaving The Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, from 1989 both edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. In addition, Maxine will be talking about her own journey in Feminist Theology, and anyone who is interested in religion will not want to miss this episode. And to anyone who is carving out a path of faith while wrestling with patriarchy, these books are absolutely essential reading, and any Mormon listeners absolutely must get Maxine Hanks’ groundbreaking book Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, which was published in 1992. But you don’t have to read these before listening - in fact in this case the episode will provide a good introduction before reading. So join us next week for an enlightening discussion on Feminist Theology, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Amy Notes and Concepts

“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”

“The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.”

“We can understand this conclusion to be the necessary result of a heterosexualized and masculine observational point of view that takes lesbian sexuality to be a refusal of sexuality per se only because sexuality is presumed to be heterosexual, and the observer, here constructed as the heterosexual male, is clearly being refused.”


I think there are some comparisons that can be made here between understanding gender and understanding race. Because on one hand, we’re taught that race is a social construct. It’s completely made-up by humans. I’m remembering a National Geographic magazine a few years ago that featured twin girls - same parents, in the same womb. And their dad is Black and their mom is white, and these twin girls look like they are different “races” - one twin is what we would call “white” and one is what we would call “black.” But how can they be different “races” if they’re twin sisters” That’s the point - they can’t. So listeners, check out this video on the national geographic website, it’s called “These Twins Show Race Is a Social Construct.” (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/race-twins-black-white-biggs) - and (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/video/these-twins-show-race-social-construct/)

And in my life too, one of our very closest family friends whose kids are like cousins for our kids, is a biracial family, and I remember them teaching their kids when they were babies that Daddy had more pigment in his skin, and Mommy had less, just like Daddy was taller and Mommy was shorter, and that was that. And that’s totally true. Race is a construct that humans invented - it’s not real.

At the same time, like my friend Rayna talked about on an earlier episode, to ignore all difference and say “we’re all the same” isn’t true either, and to say “we’re colorblind” isn’t helpful, for one thing because there are some real physical differences. I remember going to my first prenatal appointment when I was pregnant and being asked if I had any Black or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and I was like “what? Is this some sort of racist question? Why would that matter?” But I learned that there are certain genetic illnesses that are linked to groups from certain parts of the world, that developed through human evolution. So in that way, where your ancestors come from is significant, medically. 

And, on top of that, so many cultural constructs have been put in place around “race,”  and even if those cultural constructs are built on imaginary foundations, the construct has very real impact. Like, to tell someone growing up in Apartheid South Africa or in Jim Crow Mississiippi, that “race is made up; race doesn’t matter” doesn’t really help in an environment where race has been made to mean everything - where a person can live, where they can work, where they can go to school, where they can eat lunch, what bus seat they can sit in. 

AND  in addition to all of those negative aspects of society built around race, all those restrictions and dangers, there is also so much beauty and power too. For example, think of  WEB DuBois, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… that’s distinctly Black literature. And Blues and Jazz and Gospel and later hip-hop… that’s Black music, and that’s a really important... entire world of culture and experience.

So in some ways, race is a social construct - it’s invented - it doesn’t mean anything. And in some ways, race is real and it means a lot. And… it means different things to different people. Some people of color might choose to say “the only difference is skin pigmentation - it’s meaningless” and some might say “my race is a huge part of my identity - it means everything to me.” 

And I see that as being analagous to sex and gender - in some ways it means nothing; in some ways it means everything. And some women they might say “my sex is not my identity - it’s just a couple of body parts” and some might say “being a woman has determined everything about my life, for good or for bad, and it’s a huge part of my identity.”

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

Profile picture for Amy Allebest

Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.