In 1975 the feminist Gayle Rubin proposed in her work ‘The Traffic in Women’ that every society has a sex/gender system. This is a “set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention”. (Rubin 2011, p39) On this view gender is the social structure which determines how different bodies which perform different reproductive roles are categorized, socialised, treated, expected to act and so on. For example, people with vaginas will be categorized as women and socially positioned as inferior and subservient to people with penises, who will be categorized as men. Women will be socialised to be housewives, treated as sex-objects, and expected to not be interested in DIY. We thus have a simple distinction between sex, which is a biological category, and gender, which is a social category that is mapped onto sex. A person is born a female (sex) but only becomes a woman (gender) through society.
From this conception of sex and gender emerges the view that a feminist revolution would “liberate human personality from the straightjacket of gender”. (Rubin 2011, p58). For women to be free they must abolish gender and return to simply being females. Rubin writes,
“It suggests that we should not aim for the elimination of men, but for the elimination of the social system which creates sexism and gender. . . we are not only oppressed as women; we are oppressed by having to be women—or men as the case may be. I personally feel that the feminist movement must dream of even more than the elimination of the oppression of women. It must dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.” (Rubin 2011, p61)
There are two main problems with Rubin’s way of thinking. Firstly, while sex is a biological reality, how humans think about biology is socially produced. It has been falsely believed that there are only two sexes. On this model, If you have XX chromosomes then you are a female and if you have XY chromosomes then you are a male. This sex binary was enforced through the process of medical professionals assigning a sex to a child at birth based on their genitals. If a child’s genitals could not be fit into this binary, then genital reshaping surgery was performed in order to render the child’s genitals more ‘normal’. Modern science has since come to understand that sex is in fact a spectrum due to the existence of people who are intersex, or to use the scientific jargon, have ‘differences of sex development’. (Ainsworth 2015) Intersex people have a combination of chromosomes, gonads and sexual anatomy that do not fit into a strict male-female binary, such as having both a womb and a penis, or having a significantly large clitoris. Rubin was therefore wrong to think that gender was simply mapped onto a pre-existing biological reality. Sex as an assigned category is also socially produced.
Secondly, Rubin conceptualises gender as something which happens to people. People do not determine their gender, but rather have their gender determined for them by society and the sex/gender system under which they live. You are born, assigned a gender based on your sex, socialised into gender roles, and then reproduce these gender roles. What people have agency over is refusing to neatly fit into their assigned gender, such as males knitting or women boxing. The end goal being that people stop reproducing gender and thereby abolish it.
Refusing to follow gender roles is not, however, the only way that people can resist their assigned gender. People can also create a whole new gender system in which people’s gender is determined by their own personal sense of self, rather than what reproductive organs they have. This is exactly what non-binary and trans people have been doing. They have rejected the gender which was assigned to them at birth and have instead identified as a wide array of different genders, such as being a trans-women, a trans-man, agender, gender-fluid, pangender, genderqueer and bigender. In so doing they are transforming gender from being a strict man-women binary to gender being a broad spectrum. At this point gender stops tracking reproductive organs since one can have a vagina but be a man, or one can have a penis and be neither a man or a woman. Anyone with any body can be any gender. This goes alongside the dismantling of the gender binary through the combination of forms of behaviour and presentation which are rigidly separated by patriarchal gender roles, such as people who were assigned male at birth wearing dresses and make up and acting effeminately, or people who were assigned female at birth having short hair and not wearing make up.
Trans and non-binary people are therefore dismantling gender in Rubin’s sense – a rigid class system in which one is positioned at birth – and are building in its place a pluralistic fluid notion of gender which is determined by individual self-identity and represents a form of individual and collective self-expression. What Rubin failed to realise in 1975 is that the abolition of gender as a class-system does not look like gender becoming less and less important, but instead takes the form of gender fundamentally changing into something wonderful.
Ainsworth, Clare. Sex Redefined (Nature, 2015). http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943
Rubin, Gayle. Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2011)