Alive and kicking

November 18, 2005

We shouldn't dismiss the gender debate as passe - it's just getting interesting, says Mary Evans

Anthony Giddens described the 20th century as the century of women. Eric Hobsbawm has also pointed out that the 20th century was by far the most bloody in human history. We might consider putting those two ideas together and exploring the extent to which changes in gender relations provoke violent responses; we might also consider whether or not the 21st century is going to replicate the shifts in perceptions of gender of the past 50 years.

One reason we might be sceptical about the continuation of gender transformation, if such it is, is the ageing of the generation of women - my generation - who lived through, and with, second-wave feminism and made it part of the curriculum of universities. The expansion of higher education, which was generated by post-Robbins expansion, vastly enlarged the number of women (particularly middle-class women) who went to university. There, we discovered a culture organised for young white middle-class men, a culture that became increasingly unacceptable for both sexes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Social and cultural transformation was the agenda of the times, and suddenly there was a literature (Sheila Rowbotham, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Juliet Mitchell and very many others) that offered an alternative vision of the world. In those days, it was considered worthwhile to defend the curriculum against the invasion of women and other outsiders.

It was thus that by the mid-1980s, very few institutions were resisting new perspectives and subject matter. As women in universities, we could teach the "new" feminism, and the infrastructure of higher education very gradually began to acknowledge the existence of gender as an intellectual issue. It all looked very promising, it was certainly very exciting and enormously creative and it substantially enlarged the perimeters of the academy. But the question has now become, perhaps, whether or not new generations will continue to develop these ideas or dismiss them as the old-hat mutterings of an almost retired generation.

Just as I remember my mother shaking her head in amazement at my grandmother's determination to wear a hat and gloves before leaving the house, so younger women may very well sigh in exasperation as older women mention gender difference and even, heaven help us, gender inequality. One of the many paradoxes of thinking about gender in 2005 is that the new scepticism about the importance of gender comes from within feminism itself. The work of Judith Butler (particularly the argument in her first book, Gender Trouble , that there are no true gender identities) has engaged many people, but it has also had the effect of persuading individuals that gender can be chosen and negotiated. If we take that view, then emphasising gender becomes as old as the hat of my grandmother - an anachronism in a world that assumes, and, indeed, in many institutions, encourages androgyny. In terms of the intellectual history of the past 200 years, this then raises the question of the way in which feminism develops in certain contexts (the 19th-century struggle for civil rights, the 20th-century battle for autonomy) but is always linked to a generation of women for whom specific forms of social relations are no longer acceptable.

In 2005, as baby boom/second-wave feminists contemplate retirement, the fascinating issue is that of how feminism will evolve in the next 20 years.

The part played by gender in social change is a long overdue question: not the consideration of gender as a consequence of social change, but the more fundamental discussion of gender as part of the dynamic of social life. The obvious terror in certain parts of the world at the possible loss of clear and socially enforced gender demarcation suggests that gender is alive and well: hopefully there still remains a place - and an energy - to carry forward a feminist response.

Yet what this demands from feminism is not a retreat into the politics of gender identity, but a recognition, which the history of feminism so vividly illustrates, of the power relations of gender.

George Orwell rightly pointed out that the loss of history was one of the first requirements of a totalitarian society. If there is to be a retirement gift from one generation of feminists to another, perhaps it should be the record of the contest over gender.

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies at Kent University.

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