Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November - December 2000

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Barbara Marshall.
Configuring Gender: Explorations in Theory and Practice
Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000, 191pp. $Cdn. 19.95 Paper (1-55111-094-6)

Life is confusing for contemporary feminist sociologists. The concept of gender has been central to the feminist sociological project yet its meaning as an analytical concept is far from clear or straightforward. Over the past decade we have witnessed many attempts to destabilize the concept together with the admittedly dubious distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Gender scepticism pervades academic feminism. Yet those who continue to work with the concept of gender, particularly in empirically grounded and politically informed social research, have perhaps not paid sufficient attention to the task of refining and developing this concept. Barbara Marshall’s book makes an invaluable contribution towards stemming the tide of gender scepticism and retrieving the concept of gender in a manner that is constructive without being at all sanguine. It offers a careful and insightful analysis of the origins and trajectory of the concept of gender, both within academic and policy contexts, and will be decisive in shaping its future trajectory and sharpening future debate. It is refreshing to read a book that engages in an informed and even-handed manner with the complex trajectory of feminist theoretical and political debate about gender, yet does not lose sight of its overall aim – to re-configure gender as concept that can work better analytically and politically.

In the first two chapters Marshall charts the travels of the concept of ‘gender’ in both sociology and feminism. This is a complex journey but Marshall proves to be a well-informed guide. In particular, she confronts the unresolved question of the distinction between and relation between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The direction of our travel under Marshall’s guidance is the disturbing argument that the concept of gender has itself become essentialized . Moreover, this is occurring not just in academic circles, but in political contexts and popular discourse too. Yet feminist sociologists’ appropriation of the term gender was intended as a de-essentializing strategy, both conceptually and politically. The articulation of the concept of gender by feminist sociologists was a key underpinning of the formation of a feminist politics. Marshall’s simultaneous consideration of the current meaning-in-use of the concept of gender in academic and political contexts, exposing and exploring problems with this concept but refusing to abandon it, is thus vitally important

What do sociologists mean by ‘gender’? This is the question posed in chapter one. Marshall fears that the term ‘gender’ in mainstream sociology has never really moved beyond a residual essentialism. Thus the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ has not necessarily served to dissociate ‘gender’ from ‘sex’; often it simply signals that ‘men’ and ‘women’ consist of sociologically significant cultural and social bits as distinct from but as well as sociologically insignificant anatomical bits. And what has been the fate of gender in recent feminist debates? This is the question posed in chapter two, where Marshall manoeuvres her way through complex debates by collapsing then into four key lines of critique of the sex/gender distinction and of the way in which gender is used. These include debates about whether the sex/gender distinction reinforces a nature/culture dualism, about the extent to which the concept of gender renders other categories of difference invisible, about the potentially depoliticizing effects of the turn from 'women' to 'gender', and about whether gender analysis has overemphasised the material at the expense of the discursive. As Marshall correctly notes, the weighty social constructionist underpinnings of the concept of gender have opened the way for competing essentialist and nominalist understandings of how we become gendered - is there an essence (such as Assiter's (1996) notion of a minimal body) upon which gender categories are constructed or do men and women exist only in and through the manner in which they are named? Marshall succeeds in summarizing complex debates succintly and dealing with different positions in an even-handed way, before focussing her attention on the residual heterosexualization of gender and on the need to get a better handle on race/class/gender configurations. At the same time, she remains committed to an approach which, whilst tolerating and welcoming gender-scepticism at a conceptual level, must also keep its eye on the ball; which is to deal, both interpretively and politically, with a world constituted through processes of gender categorisation and revealing systematic patterns not only of difference but also of inequality. Crucially, Marshall’s strategy for a critical feminist theory is to incorporate both interpretive and genealogical moments whilst insisting that, although we must maintain an openness to deconstructive strategies that promise new possibilities for understanding, we must nonetheless also keep our eye on that material and substantive ball by investigating the gendered social as it is materialized, lived and experienced.

The remainder of the book continues to engage with the complex meaning-in-use of the concept of gender whilst shifting its focus from the academic to the political context of the mobilisation the concept of gender, in the context both of English Canadian state policies of mainstreaming gender (in chapter 3) and of anti-feminist texts and politics (in chapter 4). In chapter 3 Marshall engages with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘women’ and produces an insightful analysis of the promises and the pitfalls of terminological shifts from ‘women’ to ‘gender’. In chapter 4 Marshall’s sustained and original engagement with popular and academic North American anti-feminist literature highlights two lines of attack on feminism: the conservative, fundamentalist ‘pro-family’ and ‘pro-life’ moral projects; and the libertarian critique. Marshall shows how anti-feminist arguments highjack the concept of gender and use it in ways that, whilst they distort its meaning and re-conflate it into the category of the ‘natural’, nonetheless reveal unresolved problems with the concept. All this suggests that it is worth worrying away at the meaning of gender, and that this is a politically urgent, not a theoretically indulgent, exercise.

Inevitably, the final task Marshall sets herself is to map out an agenda for re-configuring gender. This requires being clear about the merits of gender as an analytical concept and a political resource that mobilizes identity in the service of equity or redistributive politics; we need to think with the concept, but we also need to think it through in a more sustained and critical manner. Marshall insists on the essential historicity of gender as a social category, and her own review (in chapter 5) of changes in gender relations in the context of global restructuring and of feminist political demands underscores this point. Historicity and contingency, then, are Marshall’s guiding principles when it comes to re-configuring the meaning of the term ‘gender’. We must resist the categorical conceptualization of gender: gender has no fixed content or referent, but is constituted differently across social and historical contexts. At the same time, we must get to grips with the apparent concreteness of gender as a ‘virtual reality’ (p.161). As a way of moving us beyond the pitfalls of abstract, binary categoricalism, Marshall prioritises the notion of ‘gender relations’ as an ensemble of historically located and materially instantiated social relations, as well as the notion of ‘gender identity’ as that which is available for individuals or collectives to ‘take up’ precisely because social and cultural formations of gender relations provide such a resource. At one point, Marshall considers yet pulls back from, advocating that we use ‘gendering’ in a predominantly processual way (as a verb, rather than as a noun). This is, however, an appealing strategy, as Joan Acker (1989) has also suggested, and we might need to think through its advantages and disadvantages more, as well as persuade Marshall to.


Acker, J. (1989) ‘The Problem with Patriarchy’, Sociology, 23(2): 235-240
Assiter, A, (1996) Enlightened Women: Modernist Feminism in a Postmodern Age. London and New York: Routledge

Dr Anne Witz
Sociology Division, Department of Government
University of Strathclyde
November 2000
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