Gender in Lesbian Relationships: Cultural, Feminist, and Constructionist Reflections

Article excerpt

In the 1980s, two powerful metaperspectives converged to begin a reshaping of the field of family theory and practice. The first was postmodernism, particularly social constructionist thought, which challenged essentialist notions about families and family processes as well as prevailing systemic metaphors. The second was the feminist critique, which brought not only an intense examination of existing family theories for their failure to address gender as a powerful organizing variable in family life but a revisioning of theory in a way that made gender awareness critical to family therapy practice. At times, these metaperspectives traveled hand-in-hand. Feminist thinkers themselves were questioning prevailing essentialist assumptions about the meanings and practices of gender as well as the meaning of the family and its relationship with the larger society, making original and important contributions to postmodern theory. At other times they clashed, as some constructionist thinkers in the family field relegated feminist thought to the realm of the political, seeing it as inappropriate and impositional in constructionist approaches to practice. Still others worried that constructionist philosophy provided ways to absolve therapists from addressing harsh injustices in the larger society and in the family (Minuchin, 1991).

One of the most influential and elegant contributions to the development of feminist family therapy theory was Goldner's (1988) article in Family Process entitled "Generation and gender: Normative and covert hierarchies." In a direct challenge to the prevailing theoretical ideas pioneered by Haley and Minuchin, which Goldner located in modernist cybernetic and structural thought, she argued that leading family theorists, with their family metaphors of hierarchy, organization, and organism, had left out one of the two major principles that organized family life, namely, sex or gender. Age and sex, she wrote, had been recognized in classic anthropological and sociological thought as fundamental kinship organizing principles, yet only the concept of age, or generation, had been addressed in family therapy theory. Sex, or gender, had been ignored. Goldner wrote, "Gender and the gendering of power . . . affect family life; they construct family life in the deepest sense" (1988, pp. 27-28; italics in original).

Goldner maintained that gender relationships organized not only the family but also "the politics of family therapy" (1988, p. 29). At the time, she did not differentiate among family forms and, thus, by implication, was writing about the more or less traditional family headed by a heterosexual couple. In fact, the assumption of heterosexuality has been common in almost all family theorizing until very recently, even in feminist family therapy theory. Gender relationships meant relationships between men and women, as the notion of gender was linked to the anatomical distinctions between the sexes. The (unstated) assumption seemed to be that there were two genders and two sexes and that we all knew what they were, a powerful dualism that has increasingly been challenged in interdisciplinary feminist, lesbian, and queer studies. Gender was one of the two primary and "irreducible" variables in conceptualizing family and family relationships; race, class, and ethnicity (and, presumably, sexual orientation, although it is not mentioned) were considered to be second-level variables because they did not usually vary within the family. Making a feminist and constructionist point, Goldner argued that gender dichotomies were not only constraining for women, they were constitutive; that is, they "determined what it was possible to know" (1988, p. 17).

In the last decade, feminist writers including Goldner (1991) have questioned Western cultural assumptions about gender and sex and the intersections between them, as well as heterocentric assumptions about the concept of "family" itself. She and others have recognized that anatomical sex, sexuality, and gender are mutually constructed in varying cultural contexts. …