Tuesday, August 5, 2008


It's my delight, as always, to bring you this guest post from GWP regular Virginia Rutter, prof of sociology at Framingham State College, to whom I send out a big batch of xxoo! -Deborah

At the American Sociological Association meeting this past weekend, Pepper Schwartz, Barbara Risman, and I spoke on a panel on gender and the media: The case study of the "opt out" story—covered here at GWP recently—helped get everyone on the same creepy page about how reportorial anecdotes get transformed into a mythic cultural truth…until the facts finally get the light of day.

Quick recap on opt-out: In the opt out story, the narrative was that women were choosing to leave the work force and join the mommy track. Heather Boushey and

others did the research to show that first, the work force is the mommy track—more than ever before mothers of small children—college-educated even more so than others--go to work. But there's more: our crash and burn economy currently means that women, like men, are getting laid off and losing jobs. Women aren't opting out, there are fewer jobs for them, just like men, to opt in. Evidence trumps myth.

But, as I reminded the little crowd at our ASA talk, there is a lot that goes right in our media in terms of making gender a mainstream topic, not an academic buzz word. The women and science debate set off by remarks Lawrence Summers made at Harvard has caused us to look explicitly at gender bias (thanks Larry!) and then of course to detect it in our imperfect public conversations about it. Hillary Clinton's campaign also brought about a platform for everyone to think about gender. The thinking is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes ugly (check out the Women's Media Project's sexism sells video), but it is mainstream, as this public editor essay from the Times shows us.

So, on Sunday, it felt good to read Jennifer Finney Bolan's op-ed in the New York Times on "The X-Y Games." She gave us a textbook lesson on gender and sex. She reports that:

Last week, the organizers of the Beijing Olympics announced that they had set up a "gender determination lab" to test female athletes suspected of being male. "Experts" at the lab will evaluate athletes based on their physical appearance and take blood samples to test hormones, genes and chromosomes.

Bolan, who is an English Professor at Colby College, provides a history of sex tests at the Olympics (nudity worked in 776 BC, ocular assessment was the tool in 1968, and now we do chromosomal tests). The stories she tells are fascinating. But the lesson is crucial: even sex—what we think of as our biological profile as "xx" or "xy"—doesn't fit neatly into boxes, what with chromosomal anomalies and transgender and transsexual people. This reality with respect to biological sex reminds us that gender, too, doesn't fit neatly into boxes. (Pepper Schwartz and I write about this in our book, The Gender of Sexuality.) We can't, for example, determine whether someone is a man or woman by what they wear, who they love, whether they have babies or whether they can have babies or whether they like babies.

Bolan gave us a great lesson until her conclusion. She argues gender isn't what's on the outside, it is on the inside, which means it is about how we feel and think about ourselves. But, remember the opt-out narrative? Here's the deal: no woman has to feel any particular way about herself or her identity in order to be subject to 1. cultural narratives that place her in a box or ascribe meaning to what she's doing or 2. economic forces that make her more likely than men to be impoverished or to earn a lower wage or 3. a whole bunch of other social forces that mean that gender is not just about identity but about group membership and social class. Same for the boys: No man has to feel a particular way about himself in order to be subject to 1. the threat of violence based on homophobia or 2. workplace sanctions—formal and informal—for using family leave for domestic caregiving.

But the bigger lesson is this: we're talking about gender—not in code (at least some of the time its not in code) but in direct, clear, and therefore debatable terms. We're not just talking about it in academia (which from my academic point of view is also a great place to talk, just different). We're talking about it all over the place. And learning as we go along. So give me xx/xy and I'll give you xxoo.


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