If you spend much time in office meetings or college classrooms, you’ve likely run into Gender Guy. He’s an alpha male and a liberal, and he likes to talk about gender issues—in the workplace, in society, in the book you’re reading, wherever. He pontificates and patronizes; he interrupts and shouts down. He makes the rest of the room endure his pissing matches with men less enlightened, or with those who share his general opinions but oblige his desire to quibble over details, loudly and at length.
Gender Guy’s assumed expertise might come from overly simplified connections he makes between gender and race, or class, or sexual identity, or religion. It might be based on the fact that, as an intelligent and well-spoken man, he’s by definition an expert on everything. Or perhaps he thinks he understands gender because the word—unlike, say, “women”—suggests a subject that deals not with one gender’s concrete realities so much as, more abstractly, with the relationship between two.
This last point in particular interests historian Alice Kessler-Harris. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kessler-Harris considers the consequences for her own discipline when, starting in the early 1990s, gender history began to take over the ground previously held by women’s history (subscription required). She allows that “gender is a tempting and powerful framework”:
Far more inclusive than the category of women, [gender] raises questions not so much about what women did or did not do, but about how the organization or relationships between men and women established priorities and motivates social and political action. While the history of women can be accused of lacking objectivity—of having a feminist purpose—that of gender suggests a more distanced stance… The idea of “gender” frees young scholars (male and female) to seek out the ways that historical change is related to the shape and deployment of male/female relations.
And yet, something is lost:
Gender obscures as much as it reveals… [I suspect] that in seeing the experiences of men and women as relational, we overlook the particular ways in which women—immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, Chicanas—engaged their worlds… We lose the power of the individual to shed a different light—sometimes a liminal light—on historical processes.
In short, Kessler-Harris worries that abstracting “women” into “gender” can have the effect of silencing the voices of actual women—a danger not limited to the rarefied world of historians. The tension between analyzing gender relations and highlighting female voices is an old one, and it’s as broadly relevant as ever. While Gender Guy’s opinions may be impeccably feminist, how helpful is this if the abstraction “gender” gives him cover to go on and on, preventing the women in the room from getting a word in?