Troubling ‘Gender’




by Jemima Repo

Feminism and ‘gender’ politics

Today in many countries and international organisations the language of ‘gender’ has replaced ‘women’ in policy-making. Rather than representing a more comprehensive attempt to tackle sexism, however, feminists have lamented that ‘gender’, understood as a social construction, has become a mere synonym for biological sex. Moreover, when gender equality policies are not being diluted through the implementation of austerity measures in Europe, they are targeted mainly at mobilising women to carry on with the reproductive and care duties while pursuing paid employment in the labour market.

Gender, it is argued, has been hijacked to advance the neoliberal economic agenda. While this claim is valid, it is also a problematic one. Because of its close association with feminism, we easily forget that gender is neither a very new idea nor is it originally a feminist one. Instead, it has its much more troubling origins in 1950s US psychiatry.

Gender is not a “good” idea that is now being made to serve “bad” neoliberal interests. Rather, as I show in my book The Biopolitics of Gender (2015), the idea of ‘gender’ has been from the start a battleground of the management of the life and labour of populations, not only for psychiatrists and feminists, but also for sociologists, demographers, economists and policymakers.

Intersex and clinical violence

The idea of gender as we know it today was first introduced in 1955 by Dr John Money, a psychiatrist from New Zealand working at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He published a series of articles with his colleagues Joan and John Hampson on intersex people; in other words, people whose biological sex characteristics do not correspond to the physiological expectations of the male or female sex.

Money and the Hampson’s argument was a radical one. They claimed, for the first time, that their studies of their biologically diverse patients demonstrated that none of the biological sex variables could be used to reliably predict the sex role that a person would acquire in adulthood. Most patients would, however, take on the social role of the sex that they were assigned at birth. Thus, Money and his colleagues argued that a person’s psychological sex was learned through socialisation, rather than being rooted in biology. They renamed this socially learned sex gender.

Money’s new idea of gender, despite acknowledging that not all people easily fitted biologically into a strict male-female dichotomy, nonetheless led to infants born with ambiguous genitals undergoing surgery – often more than once – in order to ensure the upbringing of coherently sexed, heterosexual individuals. Money’s work therefore had a normative dimension that was firmly grounded in the Western post-war ideals of White American nuclear family life, where the nuclear family was assumed to the foundation of social order.

To support this project, it was relatively easy for doctors to get parents to consent to the surgical procedures by arguing that they were doing what was best for the child. When surgery was carried out on children old enough to speak, their resistance to this violence was often dismissed as childish paranoia.

These intersex case management protocols became standardised around the world, also in Finland and the UK, and are largely still in use today.

Feminist dues, potential solidarities

This history often comes as a surprise to feminists like me who undertook gender studies in the 1990s and 2000s. Gender, I had always assumed and was repeatedly taught, was a term introduced by second-wave feminism to challenge crude notions of biological determinism. But it was actually first created to justify surgical intervention on infants in order to maintain the illusion of the truth of biological binary sex and to prevent children from growing up into homosexuals.

The first feminist of the 1970s to popularise the idea of ‘gender’ and its social construction was Kate Millett in her 1970 milestone book Sexual Politics. Millett was followed by other prominent feminists, Germaine Greer, Ann Oakley, and Gayle Rubin. They each took the term ‘gender’ directly from the work of John Money, as well as Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst whose work focused on transgender patients and was heavily influenced by Money.

By using the concept of gender, it became possible to challenge the idea that women and men were naturally destined to act and exist differently. Money’s gender theory seemed to provide hard scientific evidence that gender roles were actually learned and that women’s liberation was possible through the overthrow of the social and cultural structures, norms, and practices that reproduced women’s subordination.

It’s now time however for contemporary feminists to acknowledge the violent past of one of its most important concepts. When Anglo-American feminists of the 1970s took the term from this psychiatric context, they ignored its abuses of infant genital surgery and the psychiatrisation of transgender people. Despite the huge gains the concept of gender brought to the feminist struggle, it was also a lost opportunity to expose the complicity of the medical profession in the maintenance the illusion of binary sex.

Feminist engagement with this past is, I believe, an opportunity to strengthen and build new solidarities and alliances across the feminist, intersex and trans rights movements.



Jemima Repo is Lecturer in the Politics of Gender at Newcastle University. She received her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2012 and is a member of the Academy of Finland research project on Biopolitics and Democracy. Her blogpost is based on her recently published book The Biopolitics of Gender (Oxford University Press, 2015).

One thought on “Troubling ‘Gender’

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