Following on from the last entry, the poststructural stance on the production of gender categories (e.g. “woman” and “man”) produces huge difficulties for those involved in policy development and for researchers generally. There is no denying the fact that most research in the field uses such a binary logic, as does most policy.
Confronting this situation Carol Chetkovich (2019) offers several strategies to include non-binary thinking in policy research and design. However, her analysis is limited by the way in which policy is conceptualized as a response to a gendered world, rather than considering how policy practices are involved in the production of such a world.
Still, as Chetkovich points out, a binary logic proves politically useful in specific instances – e.g. discussion of pay equity. What are we to do, then, when we recognize that research and policies intended to alter social practices that impact negatively on those marked as “women” necessarily reinforce the very binaries we have been questioning (e.g. man/woman, male/female)?
Westbrook and Schilt (2014: 46) give the example of “women-only spaces”, often set up to provide “safe” environments for those marked as “female”. Such spaces, the authors argue, naturalize presumed differences between “vulnerable” women and “predatory” men, reinforcing a binary logic. And, since such spaces rely on biological factors rather than on identity factors, they create difficulties for transgender people. Furthermore, the sense of “male” threat is linked to sexuality so that gender-segregated spaces “can be conceived of as both homophobic and heterophobic” (Westbrook and Schilt 2014: 49).
I and my colleagues (Bonham et al. 2015) were directly involved in research that, similarly, illustrates this tension between trying to destabilize the categories “man” and “woman” while attempting to disrupt hierarchical relationships between those marked as “man” and “woman”. In a study of women returning to cycling, we undertook to illustrate the wide range of practices and relations that together work to produce “women bike riders” as distinct from “men bike riders”. For example, we identify how the designation of “women’s jerseys” and “men’s jerseys” operate to reinforce the categories of “woman” and “man”.
At the same time, we acknowledge that, in the very act or practice of advertising and setting up interviews for women cyclists, the project itself participated in gendering – that is, in reinforcing a gender binary. Now, our purpose in advertising for “women who cycle” was to interrupt the tendency in some studies to explicitly link women to (and consequently risk normalising women as) “not cycling”. Clearly, a tension exists between these two political goals.
Our research also highlighted places where the interviewees accepted and endorsed their location in a particular category “women”. One of the interviewees, for example, speaks of her way of cycling as cautious and genders herself by relating this way of moving to women in general. At the same time, we identified places in the interviews where categories were less fixed or settled, such as where the same interviewee distinguished a group she calls “Alpha women”, who are described as being “more like men in their willingness to be more aggressive on the road” (note that this description retains an assumed “man”/”woman” distinction).
This research illustrates the challenge faced in attempting to destabilize gender binarism. Laying out this challenge is a first and important step to confronting it. Identifying tensions in positions, as we do with the interviewees, opens up a kind of flux that enables what Joan Eveline and I call “a politics of movement” (Bacchi and Eveline 2010: 335).
In Mainstreaming politics, we describe how, at times in the text, we use quotation marks around “women” and “men”, raising questions about their status as essential categories; at other times the quotation marks disappear and the terms are treated as unproblematic (Bacchi and Eveline 2010: 13). You may have noticed the same thing happening in this entry. Such a practice, we argue, envisions and allows a “politics of movement”, which starts from the premise that “knowledge” is always political. This stance relies upon willingness to self-identify as critical researchers, with the decisions about when to fix or stipulate meanings and when to unfix meanings dependent upon reflexive judgement about the political exigencies of the particular situation.
The question, in our view, is not whether to fix meaning – since for a range of reasons fixing must occur – but when to fix meaning and who to involve in the “fixing” exercise. The task, as we describe it, is to formulate guiding principles for this inevitably political process. This suggestion resonates with Elisabeth Prügl’s (2016) call to formulate “feminist ethical principles” concerning “How to Wield Feminist Power”, with a particular emphasis on reflexivity (which I prefer to describe as self-problematisation; see Research Blog entries 21 October and 5 November 2018).
While engaging with these debates, I have been struck by the way in which the term “feminist” is used, often with an assumption that its meaning is clear and indeed fixed (settled). I pursue this topic in a subsequent entry.
Bacchi, C. and Eveline, J. 2010. Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory.Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.
Bonham, J., Bacchi, C. and Wanner, T. 2015. Gender and Cycling: Gendering cycling subjects and forming bikes, practices and spaces as gendered objects. In J. Bonham and M. Johnson (eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, pp. 179-202. (Available as a free download from publisher’s website).
Chetkovich, C. 2019. How non-binary gender definitions confound (already complex) thinking about gender and public policy, Journal of Public Affairs Education, DOI: 10.1080/15236803.2018.1565050
Prügl, E. 2016. How to Wield Feminist Power. In M. Bustelo, L. Ferguson and M. Forest (eds) The Politics of Feminist Knowledge Transfer: Gender Training and Gender Expertise. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Westbrook, L. and Schilt, K. 2014. Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System. Gender & Society. 28(1): 32-57.