Ruth Hubbard on Power & the Meaning of Differences

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at
Sun Nov 28 21:15:07 PST 1999


As Angela quotes below, Katha argued against biological sex itself being a constructed category. You agree and disagree with this. Still have no idea what you are saying on this specific question.

Sure what we make of fertilisation or biological sexual differences, real and imagined, matters. Sure, it is not written in our genes that we treat our genitalia as synchedocal signifiers of ontological difference. The point here is that we don't make the biological sexual differences themselves--including of course the relatively low level of dimorphism in humans (closer body weight between males and female humans than other primates; no differenes in canine teeth, etc--whether human female sexual selection for less aggressive men accounts for that relatively lower level is an intriguing question!)

And what's wrong with attending to our real biological differences. E.g., clarifying the unique risks women face due to maternal-fetal conflict? Not matter how much we try to 'desex' or 'unsex' through discourse, we will still have biological sexes--maybe three, four or five--as a result of our evolutionary history. Iteratively desexing identity won't reduce one wit women's increased chance of breast cancer or fibroids from delayed pregnancy--did anyone respond to that point of Katha's? Frankly I don't understand your response.

> furthermore, rakesh, they've said this in response to social
> constructionist arguments about biology. that is, one poster maintained
> that he could imagine that race wasn't based on biology and therefore race
> wasn't real, but he could not imagine that gender wasn't based on biology
> and that, therefore, gender was real.

Well biological sex is real. Already noted that construction of groups in term of various suspectibilities to various diseases does not map out onto to racial categories but this seems not to be the case in terms of sexual categories. So biological sexual difference is real and meaningful in some ways; and not in others.

Well since Judith Butler has brought Engels into it, we should say that biological sex was indeed meaningful for much of prehistory since the division of labor seems to have been defined in terms of it (foraging vs. hunting).

If we want to become anti essentialist and decry any claim, anywhere and at any time of dimorphism, we can argue that 1. the sexual division did not really hold in what Engels called 'high barbarism'--e.g., women hunted, made hunting tools, etc.

We may also wish to challenge 2. whether early human societies so organized were truly free of sexual oppression despite being organized via a sexual division of labor (was Engels wrong that women had not yet been dealt a world-historic defeat? patriarchy already in formation before private property in immovable wealth? did Engels get right the connection between property, male patrimony and patriarchy?)

And of course we both agree that 3. even if the sex div of labor did largely and overwhelmingly hold it does not provide a natural or transhistoric basis for how the division of labor and family should and can be organized today.

Yet instead of taking up the last two problems, it seems to me that 'anti essentialism', the one big tool in the poststructuralist arnsenal, means that the only focus of critique can be to deny that any kind of reference to a sexual difference or division at any level and at any time could be real. Some insight results but these other questions are left untouched.

he argued that because he saw
> differences then he obviously had to assume that there were real
> differences and those differences *had* to be about the capacity to
> menstruate, conceive, be pregnant. if that's not an argument that my
> woman=ness is fundamentally about my capacity to gvie birth and your
> man-ness is fundamentally about your incapacity to give birth, then i don't
> know what is.

It does not follow that a real difference (your vs. my ability to menstruate) is a fundamental difference--especially given the overall low level of dimorphism in humans (but getting exactly right how it compares in several different dimensions to others primates would be important.) Anyway, it does not follow from their being no fundamental or even relevant differences vis a vis, say, position in the social division of labor (whether women can be firefighters) that there are no real biological differences of consequence. Indeed in order to achieve a communist organisation of labor, we will have to ensure that women are not penalized or devalued for pregnancy.

I guess I am just plodding on.


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