Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Author Meets Critics: A Panel Discussion of Jennifer Germon's Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Author Meets Critics: A Panel Discussion of Jennifer Germon's Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea

Article excerpt

Annabel Cooper:

It is one mark of a good book that it can make you change your mind. For me, Jennifer Germon's Gender: a Genealogy of an Idea resolved some of the questions that had been hovering around my first-year introductory paper on Gender - and made me change it. It asked some hard questions of a famous article which I had held dear for years. And it emphatically returns to the notice of gender scholars some figures many of us have not wanted to address seriously for some time now - most especially, that valorised and vilified alumnus of Victoria University, John Money.

Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea makes two key interventions, as I read it, into the prevailing feminist narrative of the term gender. The first is that it points out that the origins of the term were not in feminism but in sexology. We hadn't exactly forgotten this, but it has certainly been a while since we've given these origins much airtime. Jennifer's first two chapters deal in detail with this emergence of the term and its development in the work of John Money and Robert Stoller, beginning in the 1950s. She turns then to discuss how the concept migrated unevenly and intermittently across to the emergent field of feminist scholarship and was taken up as a core concept.

The second key intervention the book makes is to effect the return of the repressed in the debates around gender: the intersexed, whose bodies and subjectivities as she points out were Money's starting point, and have emerged at points in the genealogy since but only ever momentarily. At every turn, she contends, the intersexed problematise the binary structure of gender as we persist in reiterating it, but at every turn the theorist's gaze is averted from them, as binary gender is reasserted against the evidence. Even more damningly, eyes were averted from the medical and psychiatric practice of several decades in which surgical intervention to remove ambiguity was routine. The book asks us to examine the grounds for the oppositional framework which has become such a habit of mind in thinking about gender, and entirely to rethink it as a result.

I think this is a brave and exciting book and that it may be part of a gamechange occurring in Gender Studies. It critically re-examines the field as well as the idea of gender; and it is exciting to be in a field that is undertaking this kind of enquiry.

We have three speakers talking about this book today: Dr Rhonda Shaw of the Sociology/Social Policy Programme, Victoria University; Dr Melanie Beres, Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work at the University of Otago, and Associate Professor Rosemary du Plessis, of the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury.

Rhonda Shaw:

Thank you to the organisers of this session for inviting me to comment on Jennifer's book. I was interested to read the book because I have taught undergraduate courses on gender, in three different New Zealand universities, for eleven years. I want to focus on three aspects of the book in my comments today. Given the composition of today's diverse audience I will keep what I am going to say fairly general.

One of the important points that Jennifer makes right at the beginning of the book is that the concept of gender did not exist 60 years ago; it was introduced by John Money in 1955 and gradually entered social science discourse from the 1970s onward. The term has subsequently become so naturalised, particularly for English speakers that it is thoroughly taken for granted today, not just in academic circles but in everyday parlance as well. As Jennifer points out we 'nowadays assume the concept has always been available' (2009: 4).

Anecdotal evidence tends to confirm this. If people are forced to think about the meaning of the term gender they often assume we all have a gender, which corresponds to our so-called sex and that this is set in stone. To give you a sense of what I mean, for the last eight years I have been teaching a Stage I Sociology course on gender and social inequality and every year I set exam questions asking students to comment on sociological conceptions of gender, and to explain what sociologists mean when they say gender is an organising principle of social life. …

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