Changing Hands

The presentation below was from a symposium ‘revisiting feminist classics’  that took place earlier this year in which we reflected on Ann Oakley’s important and ground making work, Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972. Ann attended the event and responded generously to the presentations. I hope to return to the question of how to take care of feminist intellectual histories in Living a Feminist Life. And we hope to have future events that re-visit feminist classics. Please do make suggestions of texts that you think would be good to re-visit!

This presentation is dedicated to all the feminists who made Women’s Studies at Lancaster University such a hand-changing experience!

Changing Hands: Some reflections on Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society

Sara Ahmed

Presented at the Revisiting Feminist Classics Symposium, Cambridge University

May 17 2013

It is my pleasure to be here today to talk about Ann Oakley’s feminist classic, Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972, and also to visit the question of what it means to revisit feminist classics. I was part of the Feminist Classics reading group held in Women’s Studies at Lancaster that Sarah Franklin just mentioned. In fact this opening panel today, with Beverley Skeggs as well as Sarah alongside me, feels a little bit like a Lancaster reunion: and that of course is what feminism can be about, the creation of relations and connections that we can take with us even when we leave places behind. This reading group was one of my favourite experiences of feminist intellectual life thus far. I loved the labor of going over materials that might now tend to be passed over, of finding in them some abundant resources, concepts, and words that I often think of as life-lines, with the ability to pull you out of a situation that is murky or unclear. I think is important to think of our task here as giving time: what is behind us is worth going over, worth putting in front of us, as a way of pausing, of not rushing ahead, of not being seduced by the buzz of the new, a buzz that can end up being what you hear, blocking the possibility of opening our ears to what came before.

What I also really enjoyed too in the reading group was the attention to the books themselves as material objects. Each of us had different copies, some of them tattered and well-read, worn and as it were lived in (you can, I think, live in books, how many feminists began their feminist lives living in books!). It made me very aware of how feminist community is shaped by passing books around, such that sociality of their lives becomes part of the sociality of ours. There are so many ways that feminist books change hands; in passing between us, they change each of us.

Going back to early books is also a way of re-inhabiting the world from which books emerge; and there are many worlds. For some here today, you would be reading of a time that you were not in; about debates you were not part of, as you were not old enough, possibly not even born. A book can be before us in many different senses. And to read a book can be like visiting somewhere; a wandering in a place that might be familiar because you have been there before; or unfamiliar as you are travelling there for the first time; or because you have not been back for a while. Reading a much-read text can be like becoming a stranger; and like any experience of being a stranger, a body not quite at home, the process can be revealing.

What I was reminded of in revisiting this feminist classic was the mobility required by investigation of sex and gender: its use of such a range of materials from the science of hormones, anthropological writings, psychology as well as historical texts. I think it is interesting to think of this book in terms of its own archives: what it gathers. I was also rather fascinated by the reference to the pamphlet from 1620, “Hic Muler” which Ann describes “reads rather like a modern protest against the masculinity of the liberated women; it was a criticism of the Elizabethan woman’s independent behaviour, which many people feared would dissolve marital and domestic happiness.” This quote caught my attention just because it allowed me to hear, and I often think of the importance of history as giving us an ear, how modern anxieties about who threatens what are echoes; history as what repeats.  I think it is worth making a more general point here: offering an analysis of sex and gender as social phenomena requires pulling from so many varied sources.  Different materials become tools that allow Ann to show different aspects of how sex and gender work; for example, anthropological materials help to show variation, and whilst it might seem obvious to us today why variation matters, it is worth reflecting on why “variation” had and has utility in making feminist arguments: if what it means to be female varies across space and time, then the idea that being female has to mean being or doing x loses foundation.

This book is a good reminder of the important of writing about social categories such that they lose their foundation.  Thinking about the archives assembled by this book was a very helpful exercise for me: in Chapter 6, “Sex and Gender,” Ann refers to the work of John Money who develops his approach to sex and gender through his treatment of intersex patients. I am picking out this detail out as it shows how feminist archives were from the beginning queer archives, derived from the case studies of those whose bodies do not line up. I think this is important, and I speak here as someone located in queer as well as gender studies, because, work in queer studies often seems to forget earlier feminist work in gender studies. My point would not be “one way” (asking for these earlier materials to be remembered) because work in queer studies – and on intersexuality more specifically – would allow us to revisit Money’s own work much more critically. So perhaps one way feminist and queer studies could learn from each other’s histories would be to think in terms of their shared materials or archives. Immediately then our understanding of “materials” would broaden to include not just texts and documents, and not just case histories (an individual transformed into a document) but also bodies and lives.  That our bodies become part of a feminist and queer archive should not surprise us, just as it should not surprise us that feminist and queer theories have tended to think from and with those bodies who trouble existing sex and gender assignments. We often learn about assignments from those who fail to fulfil them.

So when I think of “feminist classics,” I think not only in terms of how some books have been received but also of  feminist labour, which is not only intellectual labour but also manual and physical labour (feminist work as handiwork, changing hands requires working with hands).  We can think then of gender as a feminist product, of how gender as a concept is “made out” of materials.  The work required to work on gender is a reflection of the work of gender: how gender as it were gets everywhere not only as an assignment of value to person but also as a complex and rather successful social system of distributing values. In a later essay, “A Brief History of Gender” (1997) Ann describes her project as “to trace the rise and fall of gender as a tool for understanding women’s position”. I think this is an interesting approach not only for how gender is treated as a tool or as a means to an end (a way of understanding women’s social position) but also for how gender is given a career, with its ups and downs, its trials and tribulations. It is interesting way of reflecting on a concept: as having its own life story, one that is entangled with the story of a political movement, and also individual stories of those of us who are part of this movement. Ann suggests in the same essay: “the history of feminism and the history of gender are so intertwined” (29). This “intertwining” means we cannot treat the history of gender simply as the history of an idea. Gender is rather “sticky”: it carries with it what has been done with it.  Or as Ann later describes in the same essay: “Gender has collected a history of both uses and abuses, of political purposes and deviations, of slippages and confusions; and it brings this history along with it wherever it goes” (53).

I was reminded of Jennifer Germon’s 2009 book on gender which gives a history of how the idea of “gender” enters feminism (the subtitle of Germon’s book is “a genealogy of an idea”). Germon’s book was recently cited by Gayle Rubin in Deviations a reader of Rubin’s early and more recent work in feminist anthropology. Germon speculates that Rubin in her feminist classic “The Traffic in Women,” which was published three years after Sex, Gender and Society in 1975, in developing her concept of the sex-gender system, was influenced by John Money’s work (this is speculation because unlike in Sex, Gender and Society, Money was not cited by Rubin).  I think Germon’s work, partly because she is keen to establish the significance of Money’s contribution, does risk ending up with a rather conventional intellectual genealogy, in which male authors are positioned as originary. I was thus struck with how Gayle Rubin confirms Germon’s speculation about the influence of Money by noting that gender as an idea was “in the air, the water, the conversations” (2012: 14-15). Concepts are not simply inventions from nothing; nor do they originate with individuals. They can be around in the atmosphere, what we breathe in, and breathe out, what is said and moves around. I like this way of approaching concepts as it allows us to avoid what we could call simply “concept fetishism”: how a concept can be treated as having a life of its own by being separated from the bodies and labour of the many involved in its creation. I like to think of feminist concepts as “sweaty concepts,” concepts that show the bodily work or effort of their making. I first began thinking of “sweaty concepts” in relation to Audre Lorde’s work, her Sister Outsider published in 1984 is another important feminist classic, for how she developed arguments through describing situations in which she found herself as a black lesbian woman in a white straight male world. It is how Lorde describes her experience of racism that gives us a concept of racism that allows us to return to those experiences in new ways. If concepts in some sense come from bodies, they can return to them, allowing us to re-inhabit the body with new understandings.

If feminist history includes history of ideas, it is hard and it should be hard to separate those ideas from our own bodies; ideas may become as worn as we do, change in the passing of time. In the course of Ann’s writing a shift on how gender and sex are understood took place. In Sex, Gender and Society  sex and gender are clearly separated, as the separation of biology from culture, with sex referring to biological differences, visible difference of genitalia, difference in procreative function and latter “a matter of culture” that refers to the social classification into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (16). Of course there were good reasons for this separation: this separation had its uses, as a way of showing that actually much of what gets identified as natural, or biological, as necessary and inevitable, is made or constructed. As an aside here I would like to note that the first feminist text I read which critiqued the “sex/gender” distinction from a feminist point of view was not actually Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), which is probably the best known example of such a critique (which I read as a PhD student for the first time towards the end of 1991) but an article by the Australian feminist philosopher Moira Gatens, entitled, “A Critique of the Sex-Gender Distinction,” which was published in a book, Beyond Marxism: Interventions after Marx, in 1983. I am giving you this biographical detail partly as it shows how our feminist journeys — how we arrived this or that text or concept or argument – depends on our historical and social situation, of where we find ourselves. This critique within feminism of the sex-gender distinction was made by many feminists across different national contexts (it was integral as I am sure many of you know to French materialist feminists such as in the work of Christine Delphy) such that this critique of the distinction between sex and gender within feminism can be considered as part of the feminist history of gender.

Perhaps we can witness in this history a gradual loss of hope in “gender” as a category that could somehow save us (which is not to say that this hope was ever universal, it most certainly was not), which also I think involve less certainty about the concept of “de-gendering.” It might be interesting to read work in queer and transgender studies through this lens: to ask whether some of what gets called “gender queer” is a way of living out feminist hopes of de-gendering, often through the proliferation of genders rather than through disappearance of gender as such. Whatever has happened to gender, whatever new and unexpected styles of gender have come into being, I do think it is harder to invest feminist hope in de-gendering, possibly as gender cannot be contained by or as culture, going as it were all the way down (which is not to say that when I re-read the final chapter of Housewife, “Breaking the Circle,” which calls an ideological revolution, for the abolition of the family as well gender roles, I didn’t have that rush for excitement that follows that thought!). I don’t think it is a bad thing to lose confidence in some of our own terms: losing confidence is often the occasion for new thought. And partly the loss of hope in gender or de-gendering is simply a reflection of the fact that even our concepts and words have lives other than the ones we give them: we all know how easily “gender” can become a form of polite speech, a way not saying a more troubling word like “sex” or in the context of the academy a more troubling word like “women.” I was one of those who fought to keep the “women” in Women’s Studies because I knew the trouble it caused (as a feminist rebuttal, as a way of saying no to the universal of the university). I have always been suspicious of any move that is about causing less trouble!

We can certainly note a shift in Ann’s work such that by “A Brief History of Gender,” she writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (30). The concepts we use to explain what we are up against are constantly being revisited; and in the process they even lose their integrity. When the distinctions we make (and in making we use) no longer hold it does not mean those distinctions did not or even do not have utility (in certain situations a distinction can be handy even if we do not believe in it). Perhaps the metaphor that Ann uses of gender as a “building block” is helpful, the concept of gender is like a brick, it helped to build the apparatus, or even the dwelling that is feminist theory. The brick has its place, but it also needs to be surrounded by other bricks.

I think I also took from revisiting the sense, how gender is not only an idea or a set of ideas but how gender is a social system supported by ideas.   Sex, Gender and Society shows how “ideas” take hold or even keep their shape. We might think of these ideas as ruling ideas within a feminist historical materialist framework. A lot of feminist theory has in a way been trying to explain how ideas hold, how for people become invested in the very ideas (the idea of femininity for instance) that seem to secure their subordination.  So while recent work on affect and emotion within gender studies might seem far removed from the milieu of Sex, Gender and Society I would propose we think of a genealogy: a strand in feminist theory that has been trying to explain why norms without proper foundation, norms that seem to be about the loss of possibility, or proximity to and acceptance of violence, end up becoming attachments, what is hardest to give up. This actually helps us place the concern with affect and emotion not as something new but as what comes out of a much longer feminist materialist concern with explaining the difficulty of transforming relations of structural inequality. Emotions can often keep us invested in what we might have otherwise have give up. This suggestion is implicit in Sex, Gender and Society. Ann notes on page 16: “Arguments long believed in have an alarming tendency to remain suspended in thin air by the slender spring of passionate, often irrational conviction.”  Passionate conviction can hold up what reason puts into suspense. Indeed thinking about how Sex, Gender, and Society could be read alongside recent feminist work on affect and emotion made me aware of the important of feminist sociology as an approach, a way thinking how even apparently intangible and psychological phenomena such as feelings can be understood as social forms (with patterns, regularities). And I would argue that now in a world of deepening inequalities, what we need more than anything is this kind of structural analysis even within sociology: when the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes liquids as “an apt metaphor for our times” because of their “intrinsic inability to hold their shape” (in Gane 2010: 19) I feel like saying no, actually, institutions and social forms have been remarkably “good” at keeping their shape.  Perhaps if feminist sociology was more recognised within sociology proper, not just as a subfield but as changing the terms of the field, different “apt metaphors” would come to mind.

Reading Ann’s work has really helped me to realise how the techniques of anti-feminism can be the same as techniques of gender. Of course this should not be surprising: you defend x by attacking those who challenge x. We can thus learn from versatility of the forms of anti-feminism something of the mechanisms whereby gender works. There are two words I noticed in the book, two words that caught my attention. One was “efficiency,” the other “happiness.” The second word I always noticed because having written a book on happiness which I had actually been struck by just how much of feminist intellectual history had involved substantial critiques of happiness. We can place some of Ann remarks on happiness (both in this book and her even stronger critiques of happiness as a form of false consciousness in Housewife) within a long feminist intellectual genealogy. We could for example return to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication where she challenges how Rousseau’s use of happiness to sentence Sophie to death in his classic Emile (1975: 43): this remains a very interesting text for feminists as it associates female imagination, with girls reading too many books, with unhappiness, an association I would argue that has stuck (see Ahmed 2010: 54-59). Or we might think of  Simone de Beauvoir who noted in The Second Sex “it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place” others (1997: 28)  and also including amongst many others Betty Friedan’s critique of the image of the happy housewife in The Feminine Mystique (1965) and Audre Lorde’s powerful critique of how happiness becomes a justification for turning away from what would compromise happiness in The Cancer Journals (1997).

Another word that caught my attention was “efficiency.” I had been puzzling in the context of my own work on diversity within higher education about how and why organizations that are generally so inefficient can be so efficient at reproducing themselves. As summary: I was puzzling about the efficiency of social reproduction (that I was puzzling this point whilst based at Cambridge University last term might not be surprising). So this quote on page 192 stood out for me: “The argument for the ‘social efficiency’ of our present gender roles centres around woman’s place as housewife and mother. There is also the more vaguely conceived belief that any tampering with these roles would diminish happiness, but this type of argument had a blatantly disreputable history and should have been discarded long ago. ‘Happiness’ can be a cover-term for conservatism, and countless evils can be sanctioned in the name of some supposed short-term psychic gain.” Here “efficiency” and “happiness” almost belong in the same sentence; they become arguments for conserving what is. So it is not only that social reproduction is efficient, but the efficiency becomes an argument for reproduction, one that can be placed alongside happiness.  I think feminist theory needs to engage with the history of anti-feminism, of how happiness and efficiency becomes techniques for justifying the maintenance of gender as a social system through attacks against those who challenge that system. In public discourse today, one of the main arguments against equality is that it would be inefficient. One of the main attacks against feminism is that it makes women unhappy. We have to in remember these texts to take up their challenge: we have to argue against arguments without foundation, but arguments that have appeal, by appealing to another world.

And I do think it is important for us to register the resurgence of interest in feminism internationally as evidence of its appeal. Feminism for many is appealing. The academy should provide a place to go to find out about feminist histories. We need these texts to stay part of our conversations; they can be handy.  I always try and teach earlier feminist work in my own courses because I think it is too easy to lose this resource. So whilst I think canonisation is a risk (that in giving some texts status as classics we forget others, though I am sure all of us have different texts that are classics for us, because of our reading trajectories: a mini task for each of you would be to write a list of your top ten feminist classics) but I think the bigger risk is a generalised forgetting. Certain styles of feminist work are often considered “dated,” as having lost their relevance. At Goldsmiths we are launching a new Centre for Feminist Research and one of our launch events will be a workshop on Sexism (on May 9th, 2014, save the date!). Within the academy, as with most institutions, “sexism” is routine and everyday.  I call some forms of academic sexism “critical sexism”: the kind of sexism that gets reproduced by individuals and/or institutions who thinking of themselves as critical and thus not implicated in sexism.  I even had one leftist male colleague defend an all male reading list for a course on the history of social thought because he said that it couldn’t be helped that men (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) were the origins of Sociology! And yet I suspect words like “sexism” are heard as dated, as part of the tool-kit of old style feminism; it is certainly not a word that is exercised with much regularity in recent feminist theory. We have to wonder about this: are we losing the word only to keep the thing? Revisiting this feminist classic has given me renewed sense of the importance of being stubborn about feminist attachments: of why we need still to use the words if the worlds they describe are still with us.

And just finally: I have been thinking with this book about the generation of feminist knowledge. I have focused possibly too much on “concepts,” as the building blocks of feminist theory. But I also think our experience of being in the world as feminists is how we generate knowledge. Being a feminist does involve its own pedagogy, as you witness the reactions of others.  I have thought of this in terms of the rolling eye syndrome: how if you are a feminist or even the feminist at the table people tend to roll their eyes before you even say anything. In the rolling eyes is an expectation that you will be difficult. There can be nothing more difficult than the assumption you will be difficult! An assumption can be a cramping of space. I have in my own work been exploring this familiar figure of the feminist killjoy – the one who gets in the way of happiness or just the one who gets in the way – as a site of critical potential and even agency.  You can become willing to get in the way of happiness! It can be a life project. And actually when we ask the question of what it means to revisit feminist classics, it is also worth reflecting on what it means to live feminist lives. We come up against what we are against. And there are costs in this history: for many of the women who wrote the texts that were to become feminist classics the costs were personal and high. But going back is also to be energised: and to be reminded that a feminist life was and is full of joy, as worlds are opened up, as connections are made, as possibilities are not given up in advance of their loss. And also think of how much we know, here in this room, think of all the knowledge and understanding that is here with us in this room. No wonder some fear the consequences of feminist gatherings! They should be scared, who knows what we could do! And if each of us arrives here with our own histories that are particular, it is those histories have led us here, to share in this project of revisiting a feminist classic. If a feminist classic is a book that circulates amongst feminists, such that its words and concepts become part of a shared horizon, then a feminist classic is also like a friendly greeting, or a hand reaching out: a way of opening a conversation, a way of feeling less alone.


Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage


Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Friedan, Betty (1965). The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gane, Nicholas (2004). The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London.

Gatens, Moira (1983). “The Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction” in Judith Allen and

Paul Patton (ed), Beyond Marxism: Interventions After Marx. Sydney:


Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.

———————(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The

Crossing Press.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

———————–(1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

———————- (1990). Housewife. Penguin (new edition).

Rubin, Gayle (2012). Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1975). A Vindication of the Rights of Women. New York: W.W.Norton.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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