One World Trade Center once stood as a defiant rebuke to the mass murder of 9/11. Now it shines a pink beacon to celebrate the killing of unborn children. This affirmation of a woman’s right to abortion occurs at a time when the most advanced thinkers of the age assert that the very notion of “woman”—or “man,” for that matter—is nothing but an arbitrary social construct, to be manipulated and re-imagined by an equally arbitrary individual sense of gender identity. Those living in such times and disturbed by these developments might think it imprudent to critique anyone with the courage to stand athwart the arc of sexual history and yell “Stop!”
Ryan T. Anderson is such a courageous person and I am his imprudent critic. I respect Anderson for his willingness to enter the lion’s den of mainstream academic institutions and engage those who do not already agree with him. Yet I hold little hope for the persuasive powers of his argumentation largely because he offers little more than warmed-over versions of the same argument for “traditional” family values that conservatives have been serving up since the assault on the 1950s’ version of those values began in the 1960s. This argument follows a general trajectory of invoking “timeless” gender distinctions rooted in biology and ends up offering a Victorian “separate spheres” gender norm thinly veiled in 1950s suburban drag. This “Stop” has failed even to slow the seemingly inevitable progress from abortion to gay marriage to transgenderism.
What follows here is not a point-by-point critique of Anderson’s various defenses of the traditional family, but rather an outline of an alternative vision rooted in the work of the most insightful critic of modern gender fluidity, Ivan Illich. A radical Catholic priest and one-time darling of the counter culture, Illich fellow-traveled with 1960s Marxism in drawing on the communal social norms of traditional societies to critique the radical individualism of modern capitalism. Like Christopher Lasch, his contemporary in radical traditionalism, he fell from leftist grace when he set his critical sights on how capitalism destroyed the family long before 19th-century socialists began dreaming of a brave new post-familial world.
The modern West stands alone in asserting gender equality and neutrality.
The problem for leftists was, and is, that the destruction of the traditional family was the pre-condition for the liberation and equality of women, which by the early 1980s had become an unquestionable tenet of progressive faith. Illich questioned this tenet and implicitly the broader progressive faith, with his 1982 work, Gender. Unlike conservatives, Illich conceded a certain gender fluidity throughout history; that is, history and the social sciences make clear that different people in different places and times have held different understandings of gender distinctions between man and woman. The only timeless principle in all of this is that every known human society makes some sort of distinction. The modern West stands alone in asserting gender equality and neutrality. Most of the book is a reflection on the sources and consequences of this historical and cultural novelty.
In Gender, Illich reveals the depth and scope to which capitalist modernity has unsettled family life and relations between men and women in general. He captures this unsettling through his articulation of a distinction between “gender” and “sex.” In perhaps his clearest statement of this distinction, Illich writes:
My theory allows me to oppose two modes of existence, which I call the reign of vernacular gender and the regime of economic sex. The terms themselves indicate that both forms of being are dual and that the two dualities are very different in kind. By social gender I mean the eminently local and timebound duality that sets off men and women under circumstances and conditions that prevent them from saying, doing, desiring, or perceiving ‘the same thing.’ By economic, or social, sex I mean the duality that stretches toward the illusory goal of economic, political, legal, or social equality between women and men. Under this second construction of reality, as I shall show, equality is mostly fanciful. The essay, then, is cast in the form of an epilogue on the industrial age and its chimeras. Through writing it, I came to understand in a new way . . . what this age has irremediably destroyed. Only the transmorgrification of the commons into resources can be compared to that of gender into sex.1
As the reign of “gender” stresses difference and complementarity, so the regime of “sex” emphasizes sameness and equality to the point that, to use Illich’s earthy imagery, a “characteristic but quite secondary bulge in the blue jeans” is all that distinguishes one kind of human being from another.2 Illich embeds this category distinction in a broader historical narrative of the great transformation from traditional societies (of gender) to a capitalist modernity (of sex). There is no doubt that he generally sees this transition as a bad thing.
As with most of Illich’s writings, Gender has much to infuriate people across the political spectrum. In one characteristic sentence, Illich writes: “To me, the pursuit of a non-sexist ‘economy’ is as absurd as a sexist one is abhorrent.”3 Here, he criticizes both progressives who reduce male-female relations to an equality that would abolish meaningful and ennobling gender distinctions, yet also conservatives who, in the name of defending “traditional” relations, are actually defending the subordination of women within a regime of sex. For Illich, keeping women at home hardly qualifies as shoring up gender against sex, for the home has, according to his analysis, already long been transformed into yet another capitalist workplace: the stay-at-home mom is simply the low person on a totem pole—a single measuring stick of productivity and remuneration—that she shares with her more economically successful go-to-work husband.
Drawing on a wealth of historical and anthropological data, Illich sets a very high bar of authenticity for his ideal of gender. At the same time, it is a practical and clear bar that avoids the seemingly more realistic, but in fact hopelessly subjective, modern psychological discourse of male and female identity. For Illich, gender distinctions have manifested themselves historically most clearly with respect to work—or more specifically, with respect to tools:
In all pre-industrial societies, a set of gender-specific tasks is reflected in a set of gender-specific tools. Even tools that are there for common use can be touched by only half the people. By grasping and using a tool, one relates primarily to the appropriate gender. As a result, intercourse between genders is primarily social. Separate tool kits determine the material complementarity of life.4
The particular shapes of such gender distinctions are as various as the number of traditional cultures, but every recorded culture makes some sort of distinction between men and women’s work. Dire consequences can follow from transgression of those gender boundaries. Illich recounts one example of such consequences from an anthropological account of an Amazon jungle culture, in which women identify themselves in relation to baskets while men understand themselves in relation to the hunting bow:
If ever a woman touches the bow of a hunter, he loses his manhood and becomes ‘pané’. His arrows become useless, his sexual powers are lost, he is excluded from the hunt, and, if he does not just shrivel and die, he lives out his life behind women’s huts, gathering food in a discarded basket.5
Any cursory observation of recent trends in everything from male higher education to altar boy recruitment suggests that even our modern regime of economic sex cannot escape the kind of enduring gender truths reflected in the hunter-gatherers of the Amazon. The assault on traditional gender distinctions has left us with modern caricatures of these distinctions: at best, “female” means other-directed and cooperative, while “male” means inner-directed and competitive; at worst, women are narcissists and men are rapists.
Gender is a social construct, but it is not arbitrary; some societies are better than others.
Illich’s text is full of provocative, fascinating observations, with many casual, throwaway statements that call for book-length development. Perhaps most provocatively, he credits (or blames) Christianity as the decisive factor in the shift from gender to sex. It was St. Paul, who, after all, claimed that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Even if we accept this connection in terms of Illich’s sense of modernity as a perversion of Christianity, history nonetheless offers many counter examples of Christian cultures that have successfully synthesized gender complementarity with the notion of a genderless soul. We cannot and should not simply try to return to some lost world of pre-modern gender; however, neither should we respond to contemporary gay and transgender assaults on the family by affirming pseudo-gender distinctions that mask the persistence of an insidious and corrosive regime of sex. Gender is a social construct, but it is not arbitrary; some societies are better than others. The attempt to escape culture through biology is calculated to keep the noxious economic changes championed by the likes of the Heritage Foundation chugging along while the Ryan Andersons of our day do damage control by yet again invoking the family as a haven in a heartless world—which as Christopher Lasch showed so many years ago, only serves to further undermine the family.
Approaching the challenges facing the family with Illich’s concept of gender may seem hopelessly nostalgic. The fact remains that the supposedly more realistic compromise with modern sex (a stay-at-home-mom and a go-to-work-dad) has simply not been able to achieve social stability on a large scale beyond perhaps the charmed, and exceptional, generation of the 1950s. That arrangement was bound to fail for it was based on a capitalist economic system that functioned, and continues to function, through the constant revolutionizing of the means of production and reproduction. The irony of that pink beacon celebrating murder atop a memorial to the dead might be lost on the likes of Andrew Cuomo, but he and his ilk rightly see no irony at all in celebrating abortion atop a building dedicated to the advancement of economic globalization. A vision of family life rooted in something like Illich’s conception of gender would inevitably move us away from the capitalist model and toward more sustainable, and loving, relations among ourselves and with nature.
1 Ivan Illich, Gender (New York: Marion Boyars, 1982), 20-21.↩
2 Ibid., 13.↩
3 Ibid., 4.↩
4 Ibid., 90.↩
5 Ibid., 91.↩