The heated and sometimes vicious debate between some trans activists and a subset of radical feminists who deny that trans women are women (TERFs) has widened to include other feminists who I wouldn't have previously thought of as radicals (such as Caroline Criado-Perez. One of the issues is that trans thinkers are using the term "gender" in a different way from that normally used in mainstream women's studies (and the way in which I'd previously used it in my own research). But I've just come across a couple of useful pieces by the historical researcher Cristan Williams that suggest to me how this new way of conceptualising gender might fit with previous models, but also expand them usefully.
The two pieces are Contextualizing the Body and Critical of "Gender Critical". "Contextualizing the Body" is arguing that gender is the "labelling of and inevitable contextualization of sex attributes". Williams defines "contextualization" as "the process of organizing data as being situationally and functionally interconnected to other concepts". She uses the analogy of the difference between a sound (a physical phenomenon) and our understanding of that sound.
In other words, someone being identified as "male" or "female" is a mental creation. I've always been unhappy with this idea of biological sex as created since I came across it in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. But Williams' take is interesting, because in "Critical of "Gender Critical"", she is arguing that while gender is constructed, it is also inevitable that this construction happens:
In its simplest form, gender arises from the mind’s inherent and unending instinct to note that A is like B and C while being different than X, which is itself like Y and Z. For gender to truly abolished, this hard-wired mental process must not exist
In Butler, gender is imposed on people as a form of power and those, like her, who argue for biological sex as a created concept tend to see it as some kind of wicked medical conspiracy against innocent babies. But actually, it's one of several obvious distinctions that can be used to divide humans up into groups (if not 100% accurately) and it's therefore a very common way to categorise humans in all societies.
Williams goes on:
Since this process [categorisation] exists as a relational state within the mind, each person’s subjective experience will be, in some ways, at least somewhat unique. These unique perspectives will inevitably invite discourse, giving rise to collective norms and taboos which become cultural systems influencing human behavior to one degree or another.
Williams therefore has a three level model: sex attributes, individual-mind gender (what I've also seen trans theory describe as "gender identity") and society-wide gender norms/rules. And she sees gender as operating bottom-up (apologies for the double entendre), with individual ideas of gender feeding into collective ones. In contrast, traditional theories of gender see it as socially-constructed, but in a top-down way. Society (especially patriarchal society) imposes gender on (pre-existing) males and females, often coercively. This gender imposition then has subjective effects on individuals, who may internalize such gender norms.
When you think of it in those terms, these two different views of how gender are produced have immediate parallels to the unending sociological debates on the relationship of individuals to society: do individuals create society or does society create individuals? Different authors have different perspectives, on this question, but there are also productive theories about structuration, the dual role of agents and social structures in the creation and maintenance of systems. Such theories can include power relations and hierarchies within society, but without removing all agency from individuals.
What’s more, historians of gender as socially constructed have often accepted that there is a subjective side to this construction, that there is a complex individual response to how society’s ideas about masculinity and femininity affect them. Michael Roper, for example has written about this and so have other historians of masculinity. There are all sorts of practical difficulties for historians in recovering past subjectivities, but that’s our problem, not a problem with the model.
In other words, there’s room in existing gender theories for a third level which is intermediate between bodies and society, which goes beyond simple internalization of social norms and which might correspond to trans theory’s "gender identity". The current problem, however, is that because this third level is so subjective, it’s quite hard to understand how another person might imagine it in a very different way from you. I suspect trans people underestimate how difficult a process "gender identity" is for cis people: "gender conforming", which is commonly used to describe non-trans people, isn’t a helpful phrase (although Williams doesn’t use it in her series of articles). One useful idea that Judith Butler did come up with is about gender as being a performance and I think for a lot of cis women (and for some cis men) it isn’t an easy performance. It took a long time for me, for example, to learn to cope with being an unfeminine woman.
But cis people rarely experience the extreme gender dysphoria that’s common for trans people: the sense that the gender to which society has assigned them is completely unliveable for them, is wrong in some fundamental way. To go back to the metaphor of gender as performance, it’s not just that you’ve been miscast in the part you’re expected to play, as a lot of cis girls and women feel. It’s presumably more that you don’t want to be in this kind of play to start with. I didn’t want to share in the kind of femininity that my mother tried to inculcate me in, but I’ve found forms of womanhood that are acceptable to me. The ability to do that, to fit within my "own" gender to that extent, is an advantage that I have, even if it now seems so natural to me that I don’t recognise it as an advantage.
So part of the challenge is to find terms and descriptions for this interaction of bodies and society within one’s own mind that reflect the complexities of what’s going on within both cis and trans people. I’m not sure "gender identity" works as a term and possibly we need several terms. But thinking of gender as both bottom-up and top-down potentially allows us both to understand people's experiences more clearly and also to work towards changing harmful gender norms.
Firstly, trans people’s experience suggest that individual-mind gender is not determined by a combination of sex attributes and social gender norms. A child with a penis surrounded by people telling it that it is a boy can nevertheless have an individual-mind conviction that she is female. Equally, he can have an individual-mind conviction that he is male (or even a different non-binary individual-mind view). Radical feminist thought tends to focus on social structures of oppression to the exclusion of individuals. But thinking about gender as created bottom-up suggests that if you can change the individual-mind gender and the gender performance of enough individuals, you can start to change the gender norms of the society they create.
But a bottom-up theory of gender also suggests that the scheme of "abolishing gender", which some activists call for, isn’t likely to happen. Individuals are going to have an understanding of what "men" are like and what "women" are like, because that’s the way our minds function, to spot patterns. Enough of those understandings are likely to be common for some social ideas of gender to develop, even if not necessarily the ones we currently have.
For an analogy, it’s useful to look at social constructions of age and the elderly. Ageing is a biological fact, although there’s no clear dividing line between who counts as "old" and who doesn’t, and it varies greatly between societies depending on nutrition and healthcare availability. And in social situations, other people’s age is normally "read" from their appearance and behaviour: you rarely get to check someone’s birth certificate. There are societies in which the old are valued as wise and others in which they’re denigrated: the power relations aren’t simply one way round. But I’m not aware of any societies where age has been "abolished", or where there aren’t age-related expectations and norms.
In the same way, gender is always going to exist: as Cristan Williams points out, we’re hard-wired to make such distinctions. But I’d argue that acknowledging gender as bottom-up as well as top-down gives us another possible set of tools for changing oppressive gender stereotypes and ones which it’s worth all feminists trying to use.