Ashgate, Aldershot (2015)
ISBN: 9781472435620 (pb)
Reviewed by Hannah Walters, University of Glasgow
Everybody knows that men and women are different. But behind this knowledge lies a certain uneasiness: how different are they? What is the extent of the difference? What significance does it have for the way male and female behave and are treated in society? (p.17)
These are the opening questions of the 1972 edition of Sex, Gender and Society. But to what extent are these questions still relevant to a modern reader? The release of this new edition of Sex, Gender and Society over forty years since its original publication raises some interesting questions as to the enduring relevance of such works, as well as of second wave feminist thought more broadly. After all, bastions of the movement (the recent controversy surrounding Germaine Greer’s gender politics springs to mind) have been met with heavy criticism in recent years for their failure to evolve to a changing gender politics landscape.
But in Oakley’s book – identified as a 'feminist classic' by a 2013 University of Cambridge symposium – the reader is met with a wealth of justifications for why Sex, Gender and Society is deserving of such persistent respect.
The book is organised around a singular central message: ‘the need to separate our bodily endowments from our cultural positioning’ (p.1). Indeed, Sex, Gender and Society is entirely structured around this simple, elegant disputation, with each chapter submitting a wealth of evidence aimed at deconstructing long-held cultural conflations of sex and gender, and disrupting the arbitrary dichotomisation society has drawn between women and men. Tackling issues as diverse as biology, personality, intellect and sexuality (to name but a few), Oakley’s meticulously researched and elegantly reasoned study of the ways in which sex and gender are constructed, understood and represented makes for an enthralling and convincing read; at the time of its original publication, Sex, Gender and Society must have represented something of a tour de force.
The book thus provides invaluable insight into the history of the women’s movement and will doubtlessly be of interest to anyone interested in the progression of second-wave feminism. Written in 1972 and, as Oakley herself puts it, ‘balanced on the cusp of a new women’s liberation movement’ (p.3), Sex, Gender and Society was well timed to fill the theoretical and political lacuna enveloping both academic and cultural understandings of sex, gender and equality between women and men at the time; what seems like well-trodden theoretical ground today represented a significant innovation forty years ago (The Oxford English Dictionary cites it as a defining text in its distinct definitions of 'sex' and 'gender').
Quite aside from the fact that Oakley’s book represents a valuable insight into the history of the women’s movement and the progression of second wave feminism, it is clear that Oakley’s central message remains of relevance to contemporary thought on gender politics. In light of Natasha Walter’s (and others’) discussion of 21st century articulations of sexism and the heavy reliance upon gendered biological determinism, Oakley’s work serves as an important reminder of hard-fought feminist battles of the past – as well as the fact that many are ongoing. Indeed, as Walter notes, the idea that evolutionary biological factors determine a range of gender-specific traits – everything from girls preferring pink to men’s avoidance of childcare responsibilities – has in recent years become something of a mainstay of popular science reporting in the UK. Thus in spite of Oakley’s humble reference to her book as little more than ‘a basic primer on the subject for students of social science’ (p.1), the principal argument of Sex, Gender and Society bears repeating in 2015: women and men’s gender identities are not the sum of their biological assets; gender formation is complicated. While the studies cited may now be decades old, Oakley’s sophisticated argument and elegantly uncomplicated message lends the book an enduring gravitas and contemporary relevance.
But what makes the reissue of Sex, Gender and Society truly worth (re)reading, is Oakley’s sensitive, sincere and personal introduction to the new edition, creatively entitled 'Our Bodies Are Not Ourselves, Or Do (Female) Monkeys Have Orgasms?'. Here, Oakley deftly discusses the key political and sociological issues which arise when a book focussing on sensitive and complex topics is scrutinized forty years after its initial publication. This warmly written introduction provides a key insight into both the motivations for republication, as well as to the context within which the book should now be considered. In addition to acknowledging ‘white, middle-class heterosexist biases’ of the book (p.2), (terms such as ‘Negroes’ and dichotomies of ‘normal/abnormal’ are used throughout), Oakley uses the Introduction to tackle complex issues which have become more prominent in political and academic discourse in the years since its original publication, perhaps most notably her discussion of trans experiences and politics as fundamental to our contemporary understandings of sex, gender, and how we understand the relationship between them. For the introduction to the new edition alone, Sex, Gender and Society is well worth re-visiting.
1WALTER, N (2010) Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Virago.