Babies and Gender Construction

When I look at my daughter, my baby girl, I don’t detect her gender. I am aware of her sex, for it was announced to me, rather loudly and emphatically, by nurses and surgeons, when she was born, ‘It’s a girl!’ I am aware of her sex too, when I change her diapers. Other than that, I do not know if I’m dealing with a boy or a girl. At eleven weeks, it’s all baby all the time; no sexual difference manifests itself. Perhaps I’m not expert enough to know the difference between a boy’s wailing and a girls’ wailing, or perhaps there is some magic marker that I am not aware of. But I think I possess sufficient expertise in this domain; I am the child’s father after all. Why would anyone else know better than me? My daughter’s mother, my wife, agrees; for now, it could be just as well a boy; we don’t see the girl yet.

But there are times when we have seen my girl, accompanied by her gender. My mother-in-law, her grandmother, bought her a frilly white dress, sleeveless, complete with white fur stole. My wife dressed her up in it for an outing to a wedding. She was cooed and gushed over, and everyone told us how adorable she was. It was the first time I had seen her look so ‘feminine’; the clothes had clothed her in a gender. And then, just the other day, she wore a pink skirt, also a gift. Again she looked, suddenly, as never before, ‘like a girl.’ The clothes magically transformed her; immediately, the collected set of impressions associated with white and pink dresses, ‘pretty’ and ‘delicate’, forced themselves to the fore. We were looking, amazingly enough, not at a gender-neutral baby any more but at a creature with a very distinct gender. We had participated in an act of gender construction. (I had noticed inklings of this when her first pink gifts came rolling in after birth; before that, as we had asked the asked the ultrasound clinic to keep her sex a secret, her gifts had been gender neutral.)

I have been told for a long time that gender is a social construct. I have both read and taught feminist theory. (In Fall 2007, at Brooklyn College, I taught ‘Philosophy and Feminism’ using Ann Cudd and Robin Andreasen‘s anthology; I also assigned Ursula Le Guin‘s ‘Left Hand of Darkness‘).  But I don’t think I have ever experienced the truth of that theoretical claim quite as viscerally as I have in the past few weeks, by something quite as simple as my interactions with this gurgling, bawling, cooing creature, recognizably human for sure, and certainly of the female sex as far as her biological inheritance is concerned, but lacking any other mode of definition that would allow her to be slotted into our socially determined categories of ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘man’, or ‘woman’. Right now, she’s just a baby; she awaits definition, a process in which she will participate, and hopefully, leave her own distinct imprint.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)