Civilization Without Sexes: On Language and Gender in a Time of Crisis
As I write these words in late March 2020, the world is entering another week of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Billions of people have been ordered to stay home, many states have closed borders and the most natural social interaction, be it at work, school or a cafe – something we have taken for granted – has all been but put on hold. Writing about anything but the current health crisis and the human toll it is taking around the globe seems out of place. Yet this is also a time to think about what it means for a society, and in this case a global society, to experience a crisis. While it is difficult to find instances of such a massive health emergency and its consequences in recent history, we can look to other times of trouble and danger to understand how a crisis can affect society. In what ways have people understood and dealt with crises in the past? How have crises functioned in our imagination and discursive practices? One key element that seems common to how societies and individuals have comprehended and dealt with crisis has been to translate it into something familiar and close to home: the language of gender.
Why is gender so fundamental to how we perceive the world, and especially the world in crisis? One explanation comes from anthropologists Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet:
We are surrounded by gender lore from the time we are very small. It is ever-present in conversation, humor, and conflict, and it is called upon to explain everything from driving styles to food preferences. Gender is embedded so thoroughly in our institutions, our actions, our beliefs, and our desires, that it appears to us to be completely natural. The world swarms with ideas about gender – and these ideas are so commonplace that we take it for granted that they are true, accepting common adage as scientific fact (Eckert McConnell-Ginet: 1).
To imagine disruption to what we consider familiar and ‘normal’ is often to imagine disruption to what we consider a ‘normal’ gender order.
The current global pandemic has disrupted traditional gender roles in intriguing ways that have yet to be studied. For one, we are all confined to domestic spaces, which are conventionally associated with women and the feminine. For another, according to the available data, males are more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection than females, which in turn may produce a gender imbalance or reversal of gender roles (or at least anxiety over such things) that is typically associated with societies emerging from a war. This is not to draw a direct comparison between the current pandemic and war as the two are not comparable. What I am suggesting is to look at the similarity of the social and emotional upheaval that takes place in the aftermath of collective traumatic events.
The two world wars typically generated uncertainty and instability in 20th-century Europe. Emerging from those wars involved a reconfiguration of the traditional gender hierarchy. Women increasingly took up independent roles as workers and supporters of their families, while men often returned from the battlefield with physical and mental wounds that made them unable to fulfill the traditional role of breadwinner. Looking at Polish society emerging from the chaos of the Great War in the 1920s, Eva Plach wrote about such perceptions in public culture:
Men are portrayed as ineffectual and unable to fulfill their obligations, while women are depicted as replacing men in their public roles, as strong and assertive as well as careless in their attitude toward family and nation. What are understood to be immutable gender norms and relationships are depicted as having been overturned and violated. The overall impression is of a broken-down social order that only dramatic intervention can fix (Plach 2006: 19).
As Plach notes, the perceived collapse of the ‘natural order between the sexes’ is not only something people assert and discuss. Rather, the situation calls for ‘dramatic intervention’. Feelings of uncertainty generate yearnings for the idealized past embodied in ‘tradition’ and ‘order’ as an antidote to change and insecurity. Political leaders exploit these yearnings by promising to bring back ‘normality’, which they depict as the re-establishment of the traditional gender order with clear distinctions between male and female, and with women being subordinated to male authority in the private and public realms.
What Plach described was common across the European continent in the wake of the First World War, which was a watershed in European history. It produced not only unprecedented mass carnage and mass displacement, but also transformed the ways in which societies operated after the war. It contributed to the rise of welfare states, consumer cultures and avant-garde trends in literature and art. The war also ushered in new roles for women. Skirts became shorter, corsets were thrown away. Women entered education and employment in increasing numbers, while also demanding the right to vote and participate in public life.
One of the most visible exemplifications of how the war and other social changes at the time affected young women was the emergence of the so-called ‘Modern Girl’ in all corners of the world, from Europe and the Americas to Africa and Asia. According to the authors of The Modern Girl Around the World, ‘What identified Modern Girls was their use of specific commodities and their explicit eroticism. … Modern Girls were known by a variety of names including flappers, garçonnes, moge, modeng xiaojie, schoolgirls, kallage ladki, vamps, and neue Frauen. Adorned in provocative fashions, in pursuit of romantic love, Modern Girls appeared to disregard roles of dutiful daughter, wife, and mother’ (Weinbaum et al. 2008: 1–24).
To be sure, the war by no means brought women equal rights or opportunities. Although women found their access to public life expanded, that access was limited by legal discrimination and cultural prejudice. Yet the very visibility of some women taking on new roles produced a shocking effect, at least among the traditional segments of society.
In 1994 Mary Louise Roberts wrote a powerful book about how this shock unfolded after the First World War in France. Roberts borrowed the title of her Civilization without Sexes from contemporary French writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. A war veteran traumatized by the experience of trench warfare, Drieu La Rochelle reflected the anxieties of French society in his writings. In 1927 he wrote: ‘This civilization no longer has clothes, no longer has churches, no longer has palaces, no longer has theaters, no longer has paintings, no longer has books, no longer has sexes.’ The presumed annihilation of sexual difference is tied here to a collapse of the entire civilization. In a way, as Roberts suggests, La Rochelle’s concern was not only that ‘the boundaries between “male” and “female” had been blurred during the war’. More important, he indicated that ‘the gender boundary was the most fundamental or significant’ (Roberts 1994: 3). It was a pillar of civilization like literature, art and architecture.
Similar cultural anxieties permeated Victor Margueritte’s famous novel La Garçonne, published in 1922. Although banned by the Catholic Church, the book sold a million copies in France by 1929. The novel portrayed a female protagonist, Monique Lerbier, who came from a respectable middle-class family but decided to move to Paris to lead a life of independence and hedonism. The novel gave rise to a new style that millions of young women adopted in Europe and beyond. With bobbed hair, short skirts and cigarette in hand, les garçonnes populated city squares, cafes, restaurants and theaters. In French society la garçonne opened new ways to discuss a range of issues, from consumerism and Americanization to the ‘modern woman’ who took advantage of new freedoms available to her outside the domestic realm.
And yet the figure of the ‘modern woman’ was not entirely new in post-war France or Europe. The ideal of domesticity was already being challenged in fin-de-siècle Europe. Feminist movements had been on the rise prior to 1914, while lower-class women increasingly withdrew from domestic service to work in industrial factories. The war only accelerated those earlier trends. Moreover, the post-war ideas about women acting like men or not wanting to have children had no basis in statistical evidence. Yet these issues, as Roberts writes, ‘did preoccupy, worry, and even traumatize French men and women’ (Roberts 1994: 6). How people imagined change was, in many ways, more consequential than the reality. And the language of gender upheaval had powerful potential to overblow or even manufacture a crisis.
La garçonne had an intriguing counterpart in the Polish Second Republic (1918–39). Writer and medical doctor Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński was often dubbed ‘the Polish Margueritte’ by the right-wing press. Boy-Żeleński was a vocal proponent of women’s emancipation, and in particular, what today we would call reproductive rights: access to contraception and abortion. For these reasons, Boy was accused of promoting the immoral la garçonne to innocent Polish women.
The new modern woman in Poland was a deeply politicized figure. She was allegedly a product of the Józef Piłsudski regime known as Sanacja (1926–39), which, according to National Democratic (Endecja) circles, was insufficiently nationalist and Catholic. Endecja journalists coined the term ‘Miss Sanacja’ to denote the alleged immoral female follower of the Piłsudski regime. As Eva Plach described, Miss Sanacja chased ‘latest fashions and ways of comprehending the world, she went to dances and knew the latest steps, she read Boy’s feuilletons, and, of course, she rejected tried-and-true Polish–Catholic approaches to life’ (Plach 2006: 146). The foreign-sounding designation ‘Miss Sanacja’ was not coincidental. Like the term ‘gender’ in the early 21st century, Miss Sanacja symbolized a foreign import alien to the Polish tradition.
Images of gender transgression proved critical to defining the experience of many women under communism and the trajectory of the state-led emancipation project that unfolded in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. In Poland, during the Stalinist industrial drive in the early 1950s, women were encouraged to enter male-dominated skilled occupations in such industries as construction, steelmaking and mining. The policy generated negative public reactions to female workers, who trespassed established gender hierarchies, in this way prompting the communist state to reassert gender difference and return to more ‘traditional’ gender roles in later years.
As in the case of 1920s France, the reality could not be separated from how people imagined change. During Stalinist industrialization only a handful of women entered traditionally male-dominated jobs, the so-called ‘new occupations’, posing no significant threat to existing gender relations in which men still held superior positions in the workplace and society in general. Yet the possibility of destabilizing male authority generated anxiety among the ruling elites and ordinary people alike. After 1956, when the new Polish leader, Władysław Gomulka, embarked on ‘the Polish Road to Socialism’, the party–state removed women from many male-dominated industrial occupations. Once celebrated, women in men’s jobs became strongly associated with the failed model of Stalinist ‘emancipation’ and the alleged attempt to violate the ‘natural’ gender order. The threat of women trespassing into the traditional male domain withstood the transition to democracy after 1989 and has been periodically evoked by conservative politicians and the Catholic Church to suppress equal rights for women and men.
Most recently, the spectre of gender transgression has been used to vilify policies of the European Union aimed at gender mainstreaming. A campaign led by the Catholic Church against ‘gender ideology’ started in Poland in December 2013, nearly two years before the November 2015 elections that brought the right-wing populist party Law and Justice to power. The anti-gender campaign then accelerated and became part of the government’s official agenda. The term ‘gender’, thus far largely confined to scholarly circles, became a public idea filled with a variety of meanings and emotions. For right-wing populist leaders, it became a politically charged invective and a code-word for ‘liberal assault’ on ‘normal’ people. In the lead-up to the elections of 2018, the campaign against ‘gender ideology’ morphed into an attack on the LGBT community.
Projecting the threat of gender transgression and of the reversal of roles between males and females has historically served to stir up emotions and mobilize society to help bring back ‘normalcy’. It is a natural human desire to want to feel safe and secure. This is why we need to pay attention to the language of gender and its potential to be used as part of a political strategy.
In contrast to what we hear from many politicians, journalists and the church, gender is not an ideology. At the most fundamental level it is a social and cultural category, like social class or ethnicity, that can be studied and reflected on from a variety of perspectives. But here lies the danger of acknowledging the simple fact that gender is a category of analysis. Studying gender and how it intersects with other identities involves examining power relations and employing critical thinking, which is particularly dangerous to authoritarian-leaning leaders. When we historicize gender roles, we expose not only the fact that male and female roles have changed over time (or that gender identity has been fluid and interpreted in different ways), we also expose how the language of gender could serve as a tool to enact political power and control when we are not looking.
In that sense, gender as a category of analysis should become part of everyday life not as anyone’s ‘ideology’ but as a way of asking questions about the political and social world in which we live. Here we can return to the anthropological writings by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet:
But it is precisely the fact that gender seems self-evident that makes the study of gender interesting. It brings the challenge to uncover the process of construction that creates what we have so long thought of as natural and inexorable – to study gender not as a given, but as an accomplishment; not simply as cause, but as effect; and not just as individual, but as social (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2013: 1).
These words acquire particular importance in times of crisis.
Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2013) Language and Gender, 2nd edition. Cambridge and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Plach, Eva (2006) The Clash of Moral Nations: Cultural Politics in Piłsudski’s Poland, 1926–1935. Athens, OH.
Roberts, Mary Louise (1994) Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Weinbaum, Alys Eve and Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Y. Dong and Tani E. Barlow, ‘The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device: Collaboration, Connective Comparison, Multidirectional Citation’. In Weinbaum, Thomas,
Mamamurthy, Poiger, Dong and Barlow (eds) (2008) The Modern Girls Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
 See, for example, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/24/health/coronavirus-gender-mortality-intl/index.html (accessed 30 March 2020).
 Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (1927) La Suite des idees. Paris: Au Sens Pareil, 125. Quoted in Roberts 1994, 2. Drieu La Rochelle later became a prominent supporter of fascism and a collaborator of the Vichy regime. He committed suicide in May 1945.
 Piłsudski died in 1935, but the regime he created continued until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.
 For a discussion of the Catholic Church’s campaign against policies of ‘gender mainstreaming’ see, for example, Sławomir Sierakowski (2014) ‘The Polish Church’s Gender Problem’, The New York Times, 26 January. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/opinion/sierakowski-the-polish-churchs-gender-problem.html?_r=0 (accessed 26 February 2020).