Gender matters

Recently a Toronto couple who decided not to disclose the sex of their new baby have been criticised for denying their child a gendered identity and imposing their own values on the infant.
The Canadian couple have disrupted the customary exchange that is so familiar at the birth of a baby. What is it? What did you get? The expected response is, of course, a girl or a boy. Why is this so troubling? They have a healthy baby. Why should anyone else be concerned?
It matters because gender matters. Gender informs the social, cultural and political systems through which people relate to each other and gender is a powerful determinant of social and economic inequalities. Gender also underpins people’s sense of self and of who they are. Parenting may appear to be constructed as an individualised project in the west with some choice accorded to parents about how they nurture their child, but children are born into a wider social world.
The very language we speak, and which speaks us, demands gendered identities. This is not only a matter of marked nouns, like actor/actress, which have been addressed by the refusal to use such gendered titles; an actor is an actor. A foetus may be described using the neutral third person singular pronoun ‘it’, but once the little person is in the world, in English, humanity is bestowed by ‘she’ or ‘he’.
Some of the feminist comments on this story have offered support for the couple’s liberatory project and have stressed the distinctions between sex, as biological and anatomical and gender, as socially constructed which has been a useful means of highlighting the importance of social factors in shaping what we see as appropriate for women and for men. Social practices, such as the clothes we wear are determined by social and cultural forces and not anatomical or genetic sex. However, sex and gender are also more closely connected than the simple sex/gender binary claims. Sex too is socially constructed in the relationship between social practices, categories of definition and the embodied experience of being assigned to one sex or another. Sex is more complex than the two categories of female and male suggest and includes, for example intersex.

What this story has done, however to demonstrate how difficult it is to challenge the norms of sex and gender, which is not to suggest that parents and communities who reject gender stereotyping cannot deconstruct and challenge its limitations. In order to do so we need to understand how gender works, how sex and gender are interconnected in order to provide more equal opportunities for the next generation. What needs to be challenged is the deeply embedded discrimination which persists across the globe, the entrenched endurance of patriarchy in so many social institutions and the ways in which masculinity as well as femininity is made and re-made within and by social systems. Looking harder at how gender is constructed and lived can be liberating for us all and gender identifications are also positive and productive as the experience of parenting can also demonstrate.

Kath Woodward is author of The short guide to gender, published by The Policy Press on 15 June 2011

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