Embodying Gender


Alexandra Howson

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    In memory of John A. Howson


    A recent newspaper article (that I can remember reading but cannot remember where) told a story about some feminist academics in Italy organizing a conference on certain aspects of feminist theory and textual politics. The veteran American feminist activist and writer, Gloria Steinem, was invited as a speaker to the conference, whereupon she suggested that local feminist activists and representatives from women's groups also be invited to participate. The organizers apparently objected on the grounds that the women would not be familiar with the texts under consideration at the conference, to which Gloria Steinem replied: ‘But they are the texts.’ In my memory of the text (the newspaper article) I may have omitted key points or taken from it something that was not necessarily intended by the writer (who was, I think, a member of Southall Black Sisters). But what struck me was the counter-posing between materiality and text (as I saw it), between real women and the refusal to efface experience as a starting point for feminist politics, on the one hand, and, on the other, the way in which representations and representational practice have become the starting point for academic feminism; between the legacy of feminist activism embodied by Gloria Steinem and the centrality of the text to contemporary academic feminism, a centrality that may have the effect of distancing those who do not possess, or are not seen to possess, the cultural capital necessary to participate in textual politics and practice.

    This counter-posing is nowhere more explicit, in my view, than in new feminist theories of the body that are fuelled by post-structuralist impulses and invest in deconstructive and psychoanalytic frameworks in order to ‘think through the body’ and develop accounts of sexual difference. Such theories, while ostensibly focused on the female body, are resolutely committed to Derridan and Lacanian notions of the centrality of the text in their epistemological assumptions and methodological practices. While new feminist theories of the body are increasingly taught across undergraduate courses in sociology, women's and cultural studies, these texts make for heavy reading and students typically seek to go beyond the text – often by returning to their own experience – in order to assess their value. What is lost or gained by either commitment to or repudiation of the text? What is lost or gained by suggesting that academic feminism needs to go beyond the text in order to re-establish a politics that includes attention to materiality without reducing female subjectivity to the body? Materiality is precisely the dilemma for academic feminism as it moves towards strategies for embodying gender and accounting for sexual difference. The dilemma is mirrored by disciplines, such as sociology, that seek to gender the body, to explain not only the social significance of the human body in social life but also to account for the establishment and significance of difference in the social. Embodying Gender attempts to work through the dilemma of materiality in ways that neither privilege text nor repudiate experience as the basis of a pragmatic sociology and as a necessary struggle concept for academic feminism.


    This book has taken too long to write, partly because during its period of gestation I combined part-time employment with raising daughters and partly because its aim and focus emerged more organically than perhaps I would have liked. I am, therefore, in the first instance, indebted to Karen Phillips at Sage who patiently insisted that I continue. There are also many other people without whom the manuscript would not have been completed. The idea for the book came from a seminar that Anne Witz and I organized at the University of Edinburgh in 1997 and both Anne's published work and her careful listening to early ideas about the book enabled me to think that it might be possible. Colleagues and friends assisted in this project by listening, feeding me, cheering me up and offering companionship, wine and humour. I am especially grateful to Marion and Mike Hepworth, Julie Brownlie, Pauline Padfield, Jan Webb, Alex Law, Gillian Rose and Carol Targett. David Inglis and Mary Holmes read and commented conscientiously on an early draft.

    My family remain my principal source of delight and joy and have helped in myriad practical and emotionally supportive ways. I am grateful to the unstinting faith of Nancy and Will Howson, Ginny and Deb McWhorter, Maureen and Jim Watt and Jackie and Robert Fitzpatrick. My greatest gratitude goes to my husband Richard and daughters, Holly and Jodie, for putting up with a great deal of preoccupation on my part, providing software solutions and reminding me constantly of what really matters.

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