‘I Basically Just Made It Up’: Confessions of a Social Constructionist

Sep 20, 2019 by

by Christopher Dummitt, Quillette:

If I had known, 20 years ago, that my side in the ideological wars over gender and sex was going to win so decisively, I would have been ecstatic. Back then, I spent many evenings at the pub or at dinner parties debating gender and identity with other graduate students; or, really, anyone who would listen—my mother-in-law, my relatives, or just a random person unlucky enough to be in my presence. I insisted that there was no such thing as sex. And I knew it. I just knew it. Because I was a gender historian.

This was, in the 1990s, the thing to be in history departments across North America. Gender history—and then gender studies, more generally, across the academy—was part of a broader group of identity-based sub-disciplines that were taking over the liberal arts. History departments across the continent were transformed. When the American Historical Association surveyed the trends among major fields of specialization in 2007, and then again in 2015, the single largest field was women’s and gender history. This was right up there with social history, cultural history, and the history of race and sexuality. Each of these fields shared the same worldview as I did—that just about every identity was a social construction. And, that identity was all about power.

Back then, quite a few people disagreed with me. Almost nobody who hadn’t been exposed to such theories at a university could bring themselves to believe that sex was wholly a social construct, because such beliefs went against common sense. That’s what makes it so amazing that the cultural turnaround on this issue has happened so quickly. Reasonable people might readily admit that some—and maybe a lot—of gender identity is socially constructed, but did this really mean that sex doesn’t matter at all? Was gender solely based on culture? Yes, I would insist. And then I would insist some more. There’s nothing so certain as a graduate student armed with precious little life experience and a big idea.

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