The Gender Order of Things


an article “The Women of Enron” (



September 2003


by Jennifer Reingold,
we learn about Sherron Watkins, who “spotted wrong doing and
tried to bring it to the attention of others.” She is described
as a “brassy Texas broad in the baby blue suit.” Rebecca
Mark, former CEO of Enron International, is described as “all
that was good about Enron: the brains, the verve—and yes, even
the sex appeal.” Currently, she raises cattle and wishes she
had taken more “time out for her children.” “Looking
back, I don’t know if that sacrifice was warranted,” says
Rebecca. Hmm, a career woman with regrets—where have we heard
that before? 

one of this summer’s movies,

Charlie’s Angels

Part II,

Full Throttle

(more appropriately

Full Straddle

we are entertained by unrelenting violence while viewing tits, ass,
and crotch “feminism.” These “angels” get to
straddle motorcycles, bad guys, and the hoods of cars. They get
to wear skimpy outfits and to play “hookers,” “strippers,”
show girls, and whatever else shows crotch and cleavage to full
effect. It’s all in good fun. There are even some spoofs of
male hero type movies/TV shows to keep it sort of tongue-in-cheek
(or a slap in the face for those “feminazis” who are too
dull and sexless to appreciate how liberated this is—wet T-shirts
and all). Hmm, sexy detectives. Sounds familiar.



Legally Blonde

(1 & 2) we are entertained by a seemingly
dumb, beautiful blonde, with a fetish for all things pink, tottering
around in tight skirts and high heels who is really a smart, beautiful
blonde—also she’s so sexy in a cute, perky, and funny
kind of way. Marilyn Monroe meets Lindsay (“The Practice”).
She even succeeds (in

Legally Blonde 1

) in winning the admiration
of the most sneering (read lesbian) feminist with her street smarts—in
that case, using her feminine intuition/female experiences to discover
who was at fault. Hmm, a beautiful dumb blonde who is really smarter
than she looks. Now that’s creative. 

when it comes to popular consciousness, this is the current gender
order, same as the old order, except women are now divided into
three basic categories: 

  1. Hyper-sexed creatures who can kill and maim just like the guys,
    but it’s okay because they show “boobs” and crotches
    while doing it. This makes them feminine-ists. Without the boobs
    flailing and the ass/crotch exposure, they would be women trying
    to be men. 

  2. Hyper-feminine powder puffs, with brains of steel whose liberation
    comes from knowing how to disguise all of this in a joyous affectionate
    return to/spoof of the Marilyn Monroe movies and the 1950s female.
    This makes them feminine, which nails another coffin in the death
    of the women’s movement propaganda. Without the powdering
    and the puffing and the tottering, the fact that they had brains
    would make them women trying to be men. 

  3. CEO career types who “remain” feminine and sexy and,
    more often than not, rue the fact that they missed out on their
    children’s ballet concerts and piano recitals. If they didn’t
    look sexy, they would be women trying to be men, i.e. lesbians

gender rewrite has been going on ever since the women’s movement
began sometime before or after 1969. By now, the litany (mainstream
and not so mainstream) is pretty much locked in. Without changing
the basic institutions that help keep women (and men) in a constant
state of confusion about what’s what with gender oppression,
the result, in popular consciousness, is that some feel feminists
have won their rights and should shut up and move on. Others feel
that feminists went too far and won too much and it is now men who
are oppressed. 

those of us who had other things in mind besides a gender order
where women fight for power in the corporation or who titillate,
full throttle, while pummeling bad guys, or who turn themselves
into powder puffs in order to be accepted as something more (a contradiction
if there ever was one), the question remains: where are we in the
journey from a feminist movement that raised consciousness and challenged
patriarchy, capitalism, and institutionalized racism to a hoped
for liberator society based on different values—and how can
we move forward in the face of such overwhelming mainstream, not
to mention right-wing, control of our images, our life choices,
and our revolution? 

we define feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation,
and sexist oppression, then that movement ran low on gas some years

revolutionary feminism involves raising consciousness about the
ways sexism is maintained in our societies through laws, cultural
images, dehumanization, fear and violence, control of our bodies
via reproduction and sexuality, through scientific methods that
posit the inferiority of female genes and brains, through a hierarchical,
racist, and patriarchal division of labor, then we’ve made
some inroads, but we have a lot of consciousness raising to do. 

feminist revolution involves understanding how race, class, and
gender oppressions are played out in our societies, how they interact,
and how that understanding can inform our visions of a new society
with institutions and structures that foster the values of solidarity,
self-management, participatory democracy, diversity, and equity,
then the journey has barely begun. 

for those of us who grew up in a society where women were dependent
and more or less the property of men—and all that meant about
how we were treated—women have made major gains. Joanna Brenner

Women and the Politics of Class

and Rosalyn Baxandall
and Linda Gordon in



outline some of them
as follows: 

  • More
    women are working for a wage than ever before, which hopefully
    gives them some independence 

  • There are some
    changing attitudes and consciousness around women’s roles

  • There has been
    legislation against discrimination in education and employment 

  • There are organizations
    to defend women’s interests 

  • There are women’s
    health clinics and counseling; women’s bookstores and publishing
    companies; women’s studies programs and campus organizations;
    women’s legal aid societies and prison programs; AIDS organizing;
    ecology movements; organizations of women workers; reproductive
    rights groups; and violence against women activism 

  • Legalized abortion 

  • Major improvements
    in health care 

  • Raising consciousness
    about violence against women; rape and battering became prosecuted

  • Public funding
    for women’s shelters 

  • Changes in education
    and textbooks 

  • Changes in women’s
    involvement in sports 

  • Improvements
    in daycare, parental leave 

  • Improved unionization
    of women workers

    and in women’s wages 

  • Changes in expectations 

  • Marriage and
    family seen more as an equal partnership (in theory, not necessarily
    in practice) 

for image and popular culture, women on TV have “progressed”
from “The Donna Reed Show” and “Father Knows Best”
to “Judging Amy,” “Alias,” and “Crossing
Jordan.” These new TV women have backbones and minds of their
own, but they still look pretty and show cleavage while doing it.
Even CJ on “The West Wing,” one of the best TV portrayals
of a woman, has to undo the top button of her blouse, presumably
so we won’t ever forget what gender she is. 

the same time, feminist consciousness and activism has been steadily
marginalized and constantly ridiculed almost since it began in the
mid-1970s. Currently, returning to Brenner: 

  • There
    is no grassroots movement to promote feminist consciousness and

  • Most radical
    activists and theorists have disappeared into academia or social
    reform activities. They do valuable work, but often spend their
    days adopting professional behavior in dealing with the mainstream,
    and don’t prioritize challenging existing institutions of

  • Women’s
    organizations, once committed to non-hierarchical structure, have,
    in many cases, replicated existing hierarchical institutions 

  • Reformers work
    for “equal rights” within an economic system that is
    inherently unjust and so their success is limited 

  • Conditions for
    women continue to deteriorate 

  • Male domination
    continues in the home and outside it 

  • Violence against
    women persists so that women are not free to move about the world
    without fear

  • Women living
    on their own without a man are increasingly impoverished 

  • There is sex
    segregation in the workplace 

  • Women, particularly
    women of color, are still on the lower rungs of the hierarchy,
    hanging on for dear life 

  • Gains around
    reproductive rights and affirmative action are constantly under

these gains confirm the importance of the women’s movement, in the
absence of institutional changes, gains are often mixed blessings,
making many women confused about the benefit of fighting for them
at all. For instance, the family wage for men has been replaced
by women’s right to compete. Women’s greater access to
“independence” has been matched by economic insecurity
and women doing double duty. Greater personal freedom and sexual
autonomy has often made women more vulnerable to exploitation and

had been marginalized into separate “women’s spheres of
women’s concerns,” which are considered “lesser.”
Women who choose to work on other issues find that the intersection
of class, race, and gender is often subsumed under a more traditional
“working class” politics—working class still being
consciously or unconsciously thought of as mostly blue collar white

result is that, while women can be mobilized around discrimination
or violations of individual rights or to better the lot of the poor
and disadvantaged, there is little coherent organized raising of
consciousness about revolutionary change. As Brenner points out,
women join in family “partnerships” based on gender divisions
of labor in which men specialize in income earning while “helping”
out at home, while women specialize in care-giving while helping
out with income earning. Women, more often than men, must limit
education, enter less competitive workplace situations, or accept
more flexible part-time work. Women must try to maintain partnerships
in isolation and to find work with some value, while sexist media
messages bombard them from all sides. 

media (through books, magazines, TV ads and shows, movies) hammer
women with images of ravaged, passive, anorexic females. Other images
keep women in a constant state of insecurity about their weight,
skin tone, hair color, size and shape of their facial features,
breasts, thighs, etc.  

psychology presents sexism as just a lack of communication that
can be solved by understanding each other better. There is no oppression
of one gender by another, no patriarchy in the “men are from
Mars, women are from Venus” thesis that has been popular for
many years. Rather, men and women are described as being from two
different cultures and our “problems” can be solved by
better communication and by spending money on books and lectures
by experts who are not interested in challenging the basic institutions,
such as patriarchy, that perpetuate sexist oppression. 

evolutionary psychologists and biologists use dubious “scientific”
studies to promote the view that the male and female division of
labor evolved over millions of years and these “differences”
are now embedded in our genes and brains. Men and women are genetically
different along stereotypical lines (what a surprise) that cannot
be changed. Rather, say the pop “scientists,” why not
celebrate the fact that men are men and women are women. Just because
women are genetically programmed to be more “nurturing, communicative,
and passive” doesn’t mean they’re inferior, they
say. In fact, they’re poised to take power in the new information
technology. Suddenly, the very traits imposed on them and used to
make them the property of men for thousands of years are now the
traits that will liberate them. 

can defy convention, leave friends and family, and become part of
feminist culture—and hopefully find a job they can tolerate
and live on; or they can continue to accept their so-called “god-given”
roles as dependent wives and mothers in households headed by men,
where their lives are defined for them; or women can work and consume
in a mainstream society where feminism has become a lifestyle choice,
devoid of all radical politics. 

this lifestyle feminism, fashion magazines define liberation and
women’s images for them and these images change from moment
to moment. Feminist liberation is anything that sells a product.
A woman can be competitive, yet sweet as pie; adventurous, yet a
helpless bimbo; intelligent, yet totally without a clue; strong,
yet starving enough to be a walking skeleton; aggressive, yet scared
of her own shadow; independent, yet helpless; equal, yet inferior;
important, yet irrelevant; fascist about her politics, revolutionary
about her makeup. In this lifestyle feminism, revolution is a makeup
by Revlon who is “changing the world one face at a time.”
Controlling your own body means having breast surgery “for
the shape that says you love yourself.”  

most importantly, one of the basic tenets of sexism remains unchanged
and unchallenged: that is, the deeply held belief that man is the
essential, the quintessential human being. Woman, then, is defined
in relation to him. She can never be equal, she can only be what
she is—i.e., not a man.  


women’s movement changed history, reaching into every home,
school, business, and workplace. But it wasn’t able to translate
political consciousness into concrete revolutionary social change.
It criticized institutionalized sexism, but left sexist institutions
in place. It challenged institutions, criticized them as patriarchal
and undemocratic, and then women proceeded to join them. It left
the institutions in place so that its victories could and often
did disappear with the pounding of a gavel in a courtroom.  The
Cinderella fantasy still lurks around every corner, in every movie
house, telling younger generations of women that they should be
longing for salvation and protection in the arms of a prince. We
are left straddling between being legally blonde and/or being fantasy
heroines (or CEOs) who show cleavage, as if that will help us annihilate
the enemy (or get a corporate job where showing cleavage is praised
as being liberated at the same time as it is the brunt of sexist
comments and jokes). 

until recently, there has been no articulated vision or solidarity
among leftists in the U.S. Instead, there was a legacy of distrust,
some as a result of experiences working together, some from inequalities
among us, some from personality clashes that become insurmountable
in movements where we are all supposed to love each other and be

other problems result from political differences having to do with
disagreements about the centrality of Marxist ideas and their limits
regarding feminism, racism, hierarchy, and even class. Marxist feminists
believe women’s liberation lies in women’s participation
in the labor movement; radical feminists see the original class
division as that between the sexes and liberation will come from
the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. Socialist
feminists see the intersection of class and gender requiring an
overthrow of capitalism and patriarchy. Liberal feminists see the
problem as one of civil rights. Some Black feminists oppose white
supremacist capitalist patriarchy, others see race alone as the
defining issue. We often became trapped in internal competition
for “who is the most oppressed,” resulting in a hierarchy
of oppressions, each group guilt tripping the other. White feminists
distrust white leftists, black feminists distrust white feminists,
and working class radicals distrust leftists who seem to come from
elite backgrounds. Anarchists distrust left organizations that are
structured like corporate firms. Sectarian organizations with party
lines and hierarchical, anti-democratic structures disrupt attempts
to move forward collectively. 

the oppressions of class, race, and gender must be looked at together.
They are connected in the world and should be connected in our theory,
practice, strategy, and vision. Many activists have been attempting
to make these connections and to encourage solidarity among radicals,
rather than distrust and competition. The anti-globalization movements
and world social forums have been a step forward in dispelling this
legacy of distrust.  

with the slogan “another world is possible,” many have
pushed for what is often being called participatory democracy. As
a result, the possibilities for radical social change seem greater
now than at any other time in history. Revolutionary feminists who
have tried to raise consciousness about the way sexism is maintained
in our societies through laws, cultural images, dehumanization,
science, fear and violence, control of our bodies via reproduction
and sexuality, and a hierarchical, racist, and patriarchal division
of labor need to become central to this global movement. 

are, of course, numerous women already involved, but too much of
the social forums—and other global efforts—lacks sufficient
gender focus. There is a sense that a  focus on class, rather
than a more inclusive analysis, is in command. In addition, there
are always concerns about the tendency, because of our socialization,
for women to “end up” as secretaries, there to assist
and record decisions made more often by men. Then there are the
subtle things that go on, such as: when most men talk in meetings,
they are listened to; when women talk, most men wait until they’ve
finished, then go on to address what the men have said. There are
also concerns about the still recurring dynamic that women are important
in activist groups as they are sexually available to men. 

these and other concerns are left to fester, there is a danger of
these exciting long-term global movements self-destructing, as past
movements have done. 

many options, we spend our days, unsettled and unsatisfied, critiquing
the gender order of things as it plays out in the mainstream. Additionally,
we can continue doing “double duty,” judging and correcting
individual men’s behavior in our “equal” partnerships
at home as well as men’s individual and group behavior inside
various organizations and movements. 

this is getting tiresome. For some of us it’s been going on for
25 to 30 years or more. Isn’t it time to join with others who
are beginning to answer the question, “As activists, what do
we want?” Isn’t it crucial now for revolutionary feminists
to push aggressively, publicly, and globally for a total social
vision of what we want? We should not only be creating, together
with men, a vision of “life after capitalism,” we should
also be creating a vision of “life after patriarchy,”
as well as a vision for a “life after white supremacist capitalist
patriarchy,” that is, for a wide-ranging, diverse participatory


Lydia Sargent
is an activist and co-founder of South End Press and


. She writes a Hotel Satire column and is active in a local
theater group.