by Jude Browne (ed). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007. 298pp. Cloth. $85.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9780521874410. Paper. $29.99/£15.99. ISBN: 9780521697255.
Reviewed by Jennet Kirkpatrick, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan. Email: jennetk [at] umich.edu.
This is a timely anthology that, as the title suggests, looks to the future of feminist scholarship and gender analysis. The underlying question of this volume is (to paraphrase Joan Scott): Will gender be a useful category of analysis in the near future? Most of the contributors answer affirmatively, though they differ on what they take gender to mean, and they disagree on how gender difference should influence public policy. Also most answer this question by focusing on developments in Britain and Europe. In a particularly intriguing contribution, Terrell Carver answers negatively, arguing instead for “the end of gender” (p.116).
There are eleven contributors, including Nancy Fraser, Valerie Bryson, Ingrid Robeyns, Simon Baron-Cohen, Susan Hurley, Tony Lawson, Juliet Mitchell, Catherine Hakim, and Rosemary Compton. Together they represent an astonishingly broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research. As the editor, Jude Browne, tallies it, the represented fields are “evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, socio-economics, socio-legal studies, social theory, [and] political theory” (p.3).
A risk of this kind of methodological pluralism is that it can strain at cohesion, making the contributions seem disparate or only loosely related. This is not the case with THE FUTURE OF GENDER. The volume is organized into three sections that make a good deal of sense and lend cohesion to the volume as a whole. Another boost to coherence is found in the chapters themselves. Many of the contributors have read the arguments made in other chapters and reference them in their own.
A particular strength of this volume is that the authors do not shy away from taking contentious positions. The second section on the sex-gender division is especially spirited; it crackles with controversy. In it, readers will find a series of arguments that focus on sexual difference, the body, and biology. This emphasis is unusual. Feminist scholarship has tended to concentrate on gender, a socially constructed form of identity that is seemingly more open to radical change than sexual difference. The contributors here upend this approach.
Along the way, they make some controversial claims, such as the average female brain is different from the typical male brain, polygamy may benefit women and further feminist interests, and gender may effectively be over. The first argument is made by Simon Baron-Cohen, who is careful to point out that average differences between male and female brains are just that, averages. As such, they reveal nothing about [*230] individuals, who may or may not be typical of their sex. With this caveat in place, Baron-Cohen draws on a number of scientific studies to suggest that the average male brain tends toward systematizing while the typical female brain exhibits a strong drive to empathize. Baron-Cohen points out that an implication of this research is that it is unlikely that the sex ratio in fields like mathematics or physics will be 50-50. But, as Baron-Cohen makes clear in his conclusion, there is no reason to accept such disparities. “If we want a particular field to have equal representation of men and women, which I think would be desirable . . . we need to put in place social policies that will bring about that outcome” (p.92).
The feminist argument for polygamy is made Susan Hurley who urges us to open our eyes to the extensive variety of reproductive patterns in nature. What will we see? Hurley argues that moving away from “a blinkered anthropocentric conception of sex” raises doubts about the stability of social monogamy for humans (p.99). In addition, Hurly suggests that polygamy may not be as harmful to women as previously supposed. She proposes that, for instance, “some women might take a cue from the lioness sisterhood and adopt a feminist version of polygamy, choosing to share a man who fathers their children, with all contributing to child-rearing” (p.113).
Terrell Carver’s “’Trans’ Trouble: Trans-sexuality and the End of Gender” concentrates on the body too, specifically on the bodies of those who do not fit into the traditional categories of gender or sex. Carver argues this group is increasing in numbers and prominence. It includes trans-sexual and inter-sexed individuals, those engaging in technologically assisted reproduction, and same-sex couples that choose to marry. As Carver sees it, these individuals complicate the categories of sex and gender. Some of Carver’s most interesting evidence comes from contemporary legal cases in which individuals and groups are challenging gender and sex norms. As a result, courts are struggling to craft a new and appropriately fitting language that will replace traditional terms like mother and father, husband and wife, and male and female. This struggle over language, Carver suggests, is indicative of a larger conceptual problem. It shows that law and ethics need to catch up with social and technological changes by re-conceptualizing the human subject. The old categories of sex and gender, he argues, just won’t do. They are inaccurate and exclusive.
This collection is also noteworthy for its attempt to integrate feminist theory with empirical scholarship. In an elegant and organizationally crisp contribution, Nancy Fraser charts two distinct phases in second-wave feminism. The first emphasized justice as redistribution, while the second focused on justice as recognition. Fraser argues that the future of gender justice lies in synthesizing redistribution and recognition, and in re-conceptualizing representation at a trans-national level. Fraser’s method of bridging the theoretical-empirical divide is reinforced in Jude Browne’s examination of how normative principles of equality can go terribly awry in implementation as law. Browne appraises the European Union’s Equal Treatment Principle, Britain’s Equal Pay Act of 1970, and Britain’s Sex [*231] Discrimination Act of 1975. She pays close attention to how these laws discourage individuals from bringing forward claims, address violations inadequately, and reinforce gender stereotypes. As Brown puts it, these are “misshapen policies which act to ‘herd’ individuals into self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating stereotypical roles” (p.275). One lingering question here and elsewhere in this anthology is how racial, ethnic, and religious differences play into the analysis. In Brown’s case, one wonders how the implementation of sex discrimination law has affected the lives of those who are in a racial, ethnic, or religious minority in Britain. Are these individuals herded into stereotypes as well? If so, how do racial, ethnic, or religious roles play into and interact with gender roles?
THE FUTURE OF GENDER underscores that feminist scholarship is composed of a range of divergent and oppositional arguments. Moreover, it suggests that the heterogeneity of the field is a boon, not a burden. The book’s strength lies not in wholly new intellectual adventures, but in the variety and richness of its contributions. Does gender have a future? It seems likely. As I write this review, Hilary Rodham Clinton is making a historic bid for the democratic presidential nomination and, as a result, gender, sexual difference, race, and feminism are increasingly a part of mainstream political analysis. For now, the outcome of Clinton’s bid is an open question, as is its long-term effect on American political history. Less uncertain, it seems to me, is whether questions about gender and feminism brought to the fore by recent political events will linger and nag. And, for these questions, THE FUTURE OF GENDER is a valuable resource because, rather than providing a single or definitive answer to them, it reveals that approaches are multiple and positions are many.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Jennet Kirkpatrick.