Our discussion about gender last night prompted the following thoughts.
To say that gender is a social construct is not to say that it is false or illusory. For that matter, a house is a social construct, what the Marxist critic, Georg Lukacs, would call “a reification of social relations.” Its form is based on socially derived conceptions of how people live, move, work, and relate to one another, which may or may not be useful or accurate. You can choose to sleep in the kitchen, but it is no less a kitchen for that. The fact that the bathroom is the smallest room in the house is based on the socially derived idea that people prefer to defecate without social interaction. Even though the house is a social construct, its walls and boundaries are real. Ignore them at your peril.
You can choose to modify your house, but only within the basic forms that have already been established and not in ways that impinge too greatly upon the prerogatives of your neighbors. You can reject the house and camp out in the street, but in doing so, you are rejecting the community you have been a part of unless that community has become tolerant of your desire to live in the street, but which tolerance will also have its limits, as shown by the attitudes towards those who have no choice but to live in the street.
The social construct, “house,” is based on the truth that people need shelter. You cannot reject the house without preparing some alternate kind of shelter first. Gender is no less a reality than the house even though it is intangible while the house is tangible. Family is another intangible social construct like gender, but I doubt you would deny its reality. Family relationships will remain among the strongest bonds you will have. You cannot deny them or declare them irrelevant without leaving a sizable hole in your emotional fabric. Parentage is the undeniable fact upon which the social construct, “family,” is built. Every family deals with that fact in its own way, as Tolstoy points out, but can only do so using the socially defined structures that are available to them.
Gender is no different. The truth upon which gender is built is the undeniable fact of innate sexual differences, the most obvious one being the body. Other innate differences are open to speculation, discussion, and research. To say that such differences exist does not necessarily make one an essentialist. The belief that it does so is the trap Lawrence Summers walked into when he invited speculation about why there are fewer women in scientific fields than men. The atmosphere is so politically charged that merely inviting speculation about innate differences got him labeled an essentialist pig and banned from the academy.
Another undeniable fact is that roles exist and that the viability of a community depends on certain roles being played. What are those roles, who plays them, and how are open questions as is the role of gender in answering those questions. But the answers depend upon the nature of the community as much as anything else, and that nature will limit the answers we can come up with. At best, those answers can be a consensus of the community, and changed by a consensus driven by a political process. At worst, historically deficient roles can be coerced by fear or by authoritarian means.
So innate sexual differences are real, and gender roles are going to arise from them willy-nilly. The form of those roles, however, will depend upon the interplay of many complex forces, which we had better understand as deeply as possible if we expect to be successful at modifying gender roles. Claiming that existing, socially constructed gender roles are purely the result of innate differences is an essentialist position. The feminist who claims that a female CEO’s handing out pink slips to defend corporate profit is a social advance over a male CEO’s handing out pink slips is guilty of legitimizing a dysfunctional, socially constructed gender role and is an essentialist pig.