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.

26 COMMENTS

  1. “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. ”
    And yet, since there will be no rapid upheaval of the current system yet, the first step towards sanity is for women to understand their role as wife and mother and to assist in reclaiming the home as a locus of real domestic work and the raising of children, while men can do what they can in addition to being tied to wage slavery, if the case may be. Regardless, there must be a repudiation not only of liberal ideology but of feminism.

  2. “More economically successful”… this assessment of relative economic success is based on the premise that the two individuals involved should rightly be assessed on an individual basis. However, if one instead sees this couple as a family unit whose roles within the family support and enable each other, the individual assessment becomes meaningless. He can’t do what he does without her doing what she does, and vice-versa. Each empowers the other within a social construct… the family… that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the quality of life of both participants is improved as a result. Calling the husband in this scenario “more economically successful” than the wife is a red herring. He’s not more economically successful… he’s just the one making the money.

    • That IS being econ9mically succesful. He has the money and ths power in their relationship and can kick her out any time he feels like it. She has to grovel to his every moronic whim if she wants to continue eating and living indoors.

      • Mrs. Bittner is better educated than I am. She is, effectively, COO and CFO of our family… an organization with gross revenue in the low six figures. She does the accounting, she does the disbursing. She owns the minor spending decisions and we share the major ones. She wields a good deal of economic power, has as much autonomy as I do, and enjoys an enviable standard of living for someone who isn’t “economically successful.”

        Left to her own devices in the job market she would be middle management. She could have gone that route, but instead she chose the role she currently occupies. Both of us live higher on Maslow’s hierarchy as a result. I submit to you that she is, in fact, economically successful.

        • Does she have money that she can spend entirely without you knowing about it, in anything she wants? If not, she is still helplessly dependent on your good will, which you can revoke at any time and for any reason. If that happens, she will live in poverty.

          • “Does she have money that she can spend entirely without you knowing about it, in anything she wants?”

            No. But then, neither do I. My direct deposit from my work goes into our joint account. I have no access to funds without her knowledge, unless perhaps I were to hock something… an option which she also shares.

  3. You are defending the idea the idea that women will always and inevitably be inferior to men. The problem has never been distinctions jobs; it is that men always get power and prestige and women get shit. Destroying the traditional family is necessary to destroy the idea that half the human race are worthless.* And all the idiot blather you all will spew about the respect for motherhood never makes up for a world that leaves men with power and women without it. You do not actually respect mothers or you would pay us so that we never depend on any male.

    *Instead of this wicked priest, read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on hunter gatherers. The taboo is always against women touching men’s tools or punishing men by making them inferior, that is, female.

    • Who keeps banging on that F sharp? (Or is it a B flat?) Oh! It’s Karen One-Note. Should have guessed.
      Can someone give this petulant child a Time-Out so the grown-ups can enjoy some peace and quiet?

      • So address my argument. I will restate it in short words. If women are only housewives we have zero economic power and zero power within the family. All the money is HIS. If we are resticted to ‘feminine’ jobs — those with no advancement and terrible pay — we are powerless. Is this just? If so, why?

        • Your Time-Out isn’t over with yet, young lady. And if I want something explained to you in short words, I’ll call Pebbles–IF Bam-Bam will let her out of the kitchen.

          • You call me names but never answer my questions. I assume that this is because you have no answers. You think women are inferior and deserve to be treated badly.

  4. That’s right. I think that I and all other women are inferior and that we deserve to be treated badly.

    Or maybe you’re an idiot.

    I make more money than my husband and I also handle all of our finances. If he spends a penny, I know about it. He, by contrast, pays no attention whatsoever to what I spend. I also have something he always wants, which gives me an additional power that serves as a standing joke in our house. But then we’re compatible, mainly because he’s not the man you think all men are, and I’m not the dyspeptic shrill you are. Neither one of us gives a damn about the power that is so precious to you.

    I never thought it possible that anything could be dumber or more boring than a Women’s & Gender Studies curriculum, but you’ve proven me wrong. Get a new song and sing it on more than one note or quit embarrassing the rest of us women.

    • “Neither one of us gives a damn about the power that is so precious to you.”

      This is exactly what the anti-complementarians don’t get. They think that because they see everything in terms of power, everyone else does too, which simply isn’t the case.

      • Complementarians ignore facts. If men have money, men have power. The fact that some women have deluded themselves into believing that men don’t have power and that men don’t recognize and inted to use their power to hurt women doesn’t change that fact. Eliminate the unjust effect by e,iminating the source of men’s power over women; make sure all women have enough of their own money to leave when they want to leave.

    • If that is the case, you have what all women should have. Why do you defend policies that would tske it away? Patriarchy of the kind defended in this post and the comments will never allow a woman to have more of thr good things in life thsn a man. For patriarchy to function all women have to be or pretend to be stupid, weak, cowards and to be helplessly dependent on male favor. Independent women thraten the idea that women need men. You are a feminist and it is deeply hypocritical of you to pretend otherwise.

      • If a person of either sex values freedom and personal power above all else, then marriage is not for him or her. The question then follows: What does marriage have to offer that an individual would give up a measure of personal freedom in order to have it?

        • You’re treating the marriage as the only thing in existence. In reality, men have all the power that matters in the world. If the wife has any power in the marriage at all, it’s because he allows her to have it and he can seize it back whenever he wants. Your idealized relationship of two ‘self-giving’ people never, ever exists. They carry the world woth them and can’t get rid of it.

      • “The fact that some women have deluded themselves into believing that men don’t have power and that men don’t recognize and intend to use their power to hurt women doesn’t change that fact.”

        So in other words all women are victims of male power, whether they realize it or not. And all men use their power to victimize women, whether they admit it or not.

        Sorry, but that’s paranoid to the level of lunacy, as the great majority of both women and men would tell you.

          • Some men have power over some women. But it’s hardly a universal phenomenon. Men marry domineering harpies and bossy busybodies all the time, not to mention female physical abusers.

  5. Karen – You are playing the game the patriarchy wants you to play. In other words, you are being chumped. You will never be free until you reject their values. Instead, you not only accept their values, you embrace them, vowing to beat them at their own game. They love you for it because it keeps the system going. As long as you measure your success by the artificial values of the cheerfully oppressive patriarchy, you will never be free.

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