U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sex and Gender in the Culture Wars

Perhaps some of you are aware that I’m writing a history of the culture wars. I’m happy to report that, as of yesterday afternoon, I have now completed seven out of nine chapters. I just finished writing my chapter on race in the culture wars. Now, I plan to tackle my chapter on sex and gender in the culture wars. As is my habit, I take a few weeks between finishing one chapter and beginning another to review some of the most important sources, including recent secondary literature that seems relevant. So today I ask: what sources should I look at over the next few weeks (primary or secondary)?

Here is a select list of topics that I plan to cover in the chapter, in no particular order:

Feminism and Backlash

EEOC v. Sears

Gay rights

AIDS and the Reagan administration

Gays in the military



Bork nomination

Family politics

Women’s Studies

Theoretical debates about the feminist self (think Judith Butler)

I might even conclude with something about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair

Obviously, this is far from an exhaustive list. Feel free to add any topics that you think should be dealt with in a chapter on sex and gender in the culture wars. Thanks!

52 Thoughts on this Post

    • One of my larger arguments is that left-right battles get reworked in new culture wars language, but that these traditional antagonisms remain as underlying features. In this I agree with Robert Self, who argues as much in “All in the Family.”

  1. A sequence of ‘firsts’, perhaps? Sandra Day O’Conner, Carol Mosley Braun, Geraldine Ferraro, Janet Reno, Sally Ride, Ella Grasso, etc. How do these firsts enter into the discourse about women and gender?

    • Good question. I hadn’t thought about “firsts” in such terms. But I will now. So thanks.

  2. I recommend that you include in your chapter on abortion, if you have not already, some thought related to Griswold v. Connecticut, which is one of the precursor cases that made Roe possible.

    • I deal with Roe v. Wade and the immediate consequences of it in an earlier chapter on the political emergence of the Christian Right. It might have made sense to bring Griswold into that history, but I can only do justice to so many topics in a 120,000-word book on the culture wars. Alas, Dan Williams, author of “God’s Own Party,” is currently at work writing a history of abortion in the US, so no doubt he’ll have what you’re looking for on Griswold.

    • I hear you loud and clear, Mark, I’ll check it out of my library this afternoon.

  3. This list looks great. My only suggestion would be to really focus on law–so much culture wars stuff overlaps with the first two generations of women law professors. Law schools were the intellectual hothouses.

    • Interesting point, Kurt. I’ve done a lot of legal-intellectual history in the book already, particularly in relation to church-state debates about public education, and in the context of coming to terms with post-civil rights racial thought (Critical Race Theory and such). Which women law professors do you recommend for this chapter?

  4. You know what case I’d like to see: the anti-porn law passed in Indy that brought together Catherine McKinnon and the evangelical mayor Bill Hudnut. Great stuff!

      • Kurt: do you know what has been done on that Indy law? Or on the the collaboration between conservative politicians and anti-porn feminists?

    • It’ll be in there, Ray. I watched a great “Firing Line” episode that had Andrea Dworkin as a guest, positioned against ACLU lawyer Harriet Pilpel, where they debated the Indy law. Seeing Buckley agree with Dworkin was a trip in some ways, although he was clear to make some distinctions. For example, Buckley asked Dworkin a question that implied feminism ushered in age of commercial pornography: “how do you account for the evolution of a spread of pornography, pari passu, with the evolution of women’s rights?”

  5. Under the generic topic of “pornography,” Someone needs to do a write up of the Reagan administration’s defunding of the Braille edition of Playboy. Along a similar vein of censorship, perhaps a treatment of the “Mirth and Girth” painting of the late Harold Washington.

  6. Not a specialist on this period, but Claire Potter–Tenured Radical over at the CHE and now teaching at the New School–, is, particularly on the role of pornography. She is working now on a book on the rise of porn culture, anti-porn feminism, and the Reagan administration, I think. I am a fan of her wit and insightfulness, even when I don’t agree with her views.

    • The Enjoli commercial is one of my favorites to show in class while discussing 1980s “Supermom” feminism. I pair it with this more recent “gem.”


      I believe the Supermom phenomenon is discussed in Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open.

    • Wow, both of those videos are just… I’m at a loss. I better find the words here.

  7. Perhaps something about Title IX and the rise of women’s sports as well? I feel as though this is also important in the broader culture wars, especially in terms of which female athletes become beloved and which don’t–specifically thinking about Evert vs. Navratilova and how Martina was often marginalized for her athletic build.

    Not terribly important to these culture wars, but I think it’s a facet of Americans having to deal with women and gender issues in a place that was traditionally just for men.

  8. OMG Mark! (Sorry, I don’t do threaded comments — but I’m responding to this comment above)

    I don’t watch daytime TV, so I haven’t seen that commercial. But what a fantastic comparison. In the Enjoli commercial, there’s a transaction involved, a trade of household duties (“Honey, I’ll cook dinner tonight”) for fun in the sack. In the Ripa commercial, by contrast, she’s doing it all — but perhaps that’s in return for not being expected to offer fun in the sack. I mean, the only hint of sex in the Ripa commercial is the fact that she has children.

    Somewhere, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is saying, “I *told* you so!”

  9. The only part of the culture wars, I think, that I observed personally, was the introduction of texts by women into the canon and core courses, which was only happening in my last year or two of college (86-87). The political/left issues on campus in the mid-80s, as I remember them, were different. The idea of “political correctness” and culture wars and so on are things that popped up in popular culture sometime after I graduated and just before I started considering returning to grad school. So I’m looking forward to this book (so I can close all those browser tabs I have open to old USIH posts).

  10. The only part of the culture wars, I think, that I observed personally, was the introduction of texts by women into the canon and core courses, which was only happening in my last year or two of college (86-87). The political/left issues on campus in the mid-80s, as I remember them, were different. The idea of “political correctness” and culture wars and so on are things that popped up in popular culture sometime after I graduated and just before I started considering returning to grad school. So I’m looking forward to this book (so I can close all those browser tabs I have open to old USIH posts).

  11. It’s interesting that on issues of sex, gender, the default is to go to issues of women and the contest over their changing roles, while leaving the question of masculinity aside, as if women were sexed and gendered beings, and men were the unexceptional norm from which that sex and gender were deviant. I looked at the list and at the suggestions and was wondering why there was no discussion of the intellectual turn to both critique masculinity and to reinvent it in new terms. Where is Robert Bly and the Iron man, The Promise Keepers, the academic masculinity studies, various versions of “the new man,” the attempt to ground gender differences in biology (Men are from Mars, Women from Venus), Susan Faludi’s move from _Backlash_ to _Stiffed_, etc.

    • Good point, Dan. In my analysis, in the larger book and in how I plan to argue this chapter, I don’t ignore how gender conceptions changed for thinking through both female and male norms. In fact, both of Faludi’s books weigh large here. (Livingston makes a similar point in “World Turned Inside Out” about how violent male-centric movies like “Fight Club” represented the end of the modern manhood, or the male self.) That said, although I don’t allow my analysis to be driven by my object of study, I do go to the object for my subject matter. In other words, the culture wars over sex and gender–as a topic–were largely about women (and homosexuals) and their relation to normative American identity.

      • Sure, but your approach would seem to reproduce the very binary division that various modes of thought in this era sought to undermine. In some ways, I think Rodgers is right in Age of Fracture: the debate over gender was a debate about certain vs. contingency, fixed and stable order vs. fluid and changing conceptions of society, essentialism of various kinds vs. a pluralistic world of identities to be made and remade. The culture war would appear to be not only about what women’s roles in society were or ought to be, but about whether distinctions of sex could remain meaningful. Why Butler is so important is that she takes the sex/gender distinction developed by feminism to distinguish between biological and cultural features of identity , and undermines it, showing that the idea of gender ends up essentializing and naturalizing sex. She is doing something equivalent to what Joan Scott does in “The Evidence of Experience.” Queer theory and post-structuralist gender theory doesn’t sit outside the culture wars looking in, as I’m sure you would agree. But if you take your frame to be the discussion of women and their ascribed roles, you would appear to be taking a side in the culture war–and I’m not sure it’s the side you want to be on!

  12. Bianca, Andrew’s book might be about done, but I am just getting started on my dissertation on the “canon wars” at Stanford. I would be very glad to hear from you regarding your time in college — see my blog profile in the sidebar and send me an email any time!

  13. Since you all were generous enough to suggest ideas, topics, and sources (primary and secondary), here’s a list of published sources that I think are pertinent to this topic (I’ve researched in several archives for this chapter as well). Again, this is far from exhaustive (I’ve already read most of these. A few were suggested to me by friends on Facebook):

    Andrew Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women

    Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men

    Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City

    Michael Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet

    Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (really, anything by Butler)

    Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps

    Carole Gilligan, In a Different Voice

    Dennis Altman, The Homosexualization of America, the Americanization of the Homosexual

    Frances Fitzgerald, “The Castro—I,” The New Yorker (July 21, 1986)

    Stephanie Coontz, American Families: A Multicultural Reader

    Rebecca Merrill Groothius, The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism

    Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value

    Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature

    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet

    Jodi Dean, Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics

    Peter Gabriel Filene, Him/Her/Self: Gender Identities in Modern America

    Dallas Blanchard, The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right: From Polite to Fiery Protest

    Lisa Duggan, ed., Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture

    Dan Gilgoff, The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War

    James Risen and Judy Thomas, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War

    Donald T. Critchlow, Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America

    Donald T. Critchlow, ed., The Politics of Abortion in Historical Perspective

    N.E.H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer, Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History

    Eva Rubin, Abortion, Politics, and the Courts: Roe v. Wade and Its Aftermath

    William Saletan, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War

    Kristen Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood

    Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On

    Jennifer Brier, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political responses to the AIDS Crisis

    Douglas Crimp, ed., AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism

    John-Manuel Andriote, Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America

    Dagmar Herzog, Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics

    Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right

    Susan Faludi, Backlash

    Susan Faludi, Stiffed

    Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women

    Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women

    • This is excellent. My addition: more than The Epistemology of the Closet, I would look into Tendencies, which brings together essays that are perhaps more representative of Kosofksy Sedgwick’s role in the emergence of queer studies, beyond literary criticism.

  14. Dan: You write (paraphrasing Rodgers): “the debate over gender was a debate about certain vs. contingency, fixed and stable order vs. fluid and changing conceptions of society, essentialism of various kinds vs. a pluralistic world of identities to be made and remade.” Yes! I argue the history of the culture wars is best understood through the lens of this epistemological divide–or, to use a term you seem perpetually suspicious of, this epistemological “binary.” And I think I can show as much through my focus on the topics listed above. I guess I’m less interested in offering a poststructuralist historical analysis of gender than is historicizing poststructuralism’s role in the culture wars. Perhaps this is where you and I differ in our approaches?

    • I don’t think this is where we differ, because, I too, am interested in historicizing post-structuralist thought. My concern is that this thought gets reframed as one way of thinking about women and their roles, and instead of historicizing the debate between those who would “queer” the entire gender debate and those who would naturalize sex difference, you end up on the side of those who are naturalizing sex difference, and turn the debate into a debate about changing attitudes and roles for a pre-existing group–defined as “women”–instead of addressing the way the historical debate tries to reframe the issue by, for instance, calling into question the very identity of masculinity as a normative position from which to evaluate sex difference. Sorry for the run-on sentence there! As long as the debate is defined around the historical debate about attitudes or representations of women, you are treating women as gendered and men as a norm from which that gender is offered as “difference.” There is clearly a debate _within_ feminist circles around issues of sameness/difference, biology/culture, liberal access vs. critique of power, etc.. And there is a debate between feminists and anti-feminists. But both of these seem to me part of a larger debate about whether sex difference can be meaningful without being a question of domination.

      • Dan: You seem to be conflating a methodological/theoretical problem with a political problem.

        First, on methodology/theory: Unlike you, I think it’s possible to write a history of the sex/gender wars that focuses on the issues that most people understand as particular to the sex/gender wars (the topics listed above, and discussed in the comments), without essentializing gender. Just as it’s possible to write a history of elites that’s not elitist. It’s a matter of tone and approach.

        Second, on politics: my basic concerns are not necessarily political. I’m merely trying to understand how a changed political landscape and changing cultural conceptions of sex and gender were worked out by people with various political commitments.

        But if I had to side with one such political commitment, it would be with those like Nancy Fraser. In her 1989 book, “Unruly Practices,” Fraser criticized the poststucturalism of those like Butler on the grounds that a self-less subject was easy to neutralize since, without an autonomous subject, or more precisely, without a firm ethical framework, realigning the political coordinates of sex and gender was impossible. This was not to say that Fraser recognized gender as essential, that she denied that gender was socially constructed. Rather, she thought that insofar as political arrangements could be improved for women as such, “woman” would have to be taken as a subjective political category.

        Similarly, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rebuffed those who used the social constructed-ness of race as an excuse for refusing the political legitimacy of black identity. In this, Gates had in mind colorblind conservatives like Linda Chavez, who maintained that “any attempt to systematically classify human beings according to race will fail, because race is an arbitrary concept.” Whereas white Americans had no need to declare themselves white because they were assumed American, black Americans could neither declare themselves black nor be assumed American. While rejecting racial ontology and cultural essentialism in the same terms as poststructuralists, in this way Gates also highlighted the political problems that accompanied such an antiracial epistemology: it drew attention away from the negative consequences of racism. This was the irony of colorblind America (and gender-free America). Toni Morrison put this paradox as follows: “The people who invented the hierarchy of ‘race’ when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist.”

  15. Begging y’all’s pardon as I write my way toward an idea — maybe I’ll know what I think by the end of this comment.

    Asymmetry seems to me to be important to this discussion. Dan has noticed an asymmetry in Andrew’s focus/approach, asking, in effect, “Where are all the men?” Andrew, in turn, has noticed an asymmetry in the discourse/subjects of the time.

    Dan is suggesting that Andrew is *replicating* the asymmetry of the discourse/subjects by letting that asymmetry dictate (or at least suggest) the relative weight/attention he gives to one aspect or another of contests over gender. Andrew is suggesting — I *think*, if I can read his comment here in the context of a larger ongoing debate — that situating the debate along a different axis than a man/woman axis (which Dan sees as essentialist, and perhaps rightly so) is a way of obfuscating the functional asymmetry in power relationships between the traditionally empowered (heterosexual men) and the traditionally disempowered (women/homosexual men).

    I’m not quite sure how to weigh these competing claims, but I’m pretty sure that these claims — like *all* claims — will be weighed asymmetrically. And my surety on that score comes from that Jamesian sense that thought/epistemology boils down to a matter of temperament — which is a pluralistic way of looking at the world, as opposed to a more singular vision (unless I am suffering from the singular myopia of pluralism).

    What I can’t figure out from either of these competing ways of looking at the past is how to account for (or to *not* account for) experience. Everyone is gendered, including those who inquire into the problem of gender. So how do you — and by you I mean *anybody* — analyze Fight Club without talking about Fight Club?

    Nope, still don’t know what I think. Somebody help me out here.

  16. Sorry about that double post. It didn’t look like that was going to happen. Also, there was something about the two commercials linked that got deleted somehow. It was interesting how the woman in the older ad addressed a single person and stepped into an existing cultural slot (the 1963 song), while in the later ad she seemed to be trying to meet the expectations of the crowd.

    LD, thanks for the offer. I was at Columbia, which is probably at the left end of the spectrum (and was still integrating women into the undergraduate program in 1987), and don’t remember all that much protest against the changes. But I’ll try to drop you a line from my real-name account (this is a pseudonym).

    • Bianca, I am a big believer in respecting people’s online anonymity/pseudonymity. I would welcome an email, and would certainly not disclose your identity to anyone, nor connect your real-name account with your internet pseudonym.

      Internet identity, btw, reveals/refracts sex/gender issues in interesting ways, as my fellow bloggers here learned when they met me in person and concluded that I could reasonably be classed among some pre-existing group defined as “women.” (Before that, they assumed that I belonged to a different group defined as “men.”)

      • Yes, it should be part of this chapter (although I can’t do all of these topics justice in just this one chapter).

  17. Someone at another blog I look at linked Susan Faludi’s very recent New Yorker piece (it may be in the current issue) on Shulamit Firestone (best known for ‘Dialectic of Sex’). An interesting piece — it held my attention partly for the biographical angle (she had a rather tortured life, it sounded like).

    • To give more proper credit, the blog on which I first saw it linked is called Thus Blogged Anderson.

    • yes, definitely. Especially since it was pursued, at least in part, in popular journals, and covered extensively in Lingua Franca, etc.

  18. Andrew: “You” (that’s me!) “seem to be conflating a methodological/theoretical problem with a political problem.
    First, on methodology/theory: Unlike you, I think it’s possible to write a history of the sex/gender wars that focuses on the issues that most people understand as particular to the sex/gender wars (the topics listed above, and discussed in the comments), without essentializing gender. Just as it’s possible to write a history of elites that’s not elitist. It’s a matter of tone and approach.”

    Even if we accept that you can write a history of elites that’s not elitist, which seems obvious, the comparison isn’t apt. Gender is a relation, not a social group; you would have to be writing a history of elite/popular relations (and I would think it would not be good history to just define a group as an elite and write its history without seeing the very conception of elite as dependent upon a distinction between that group and various others, defined in various ways), The concept of gender moves the understanding of sex difference into the realm of ideas based on oppositions of various sorts, and away from the naturalizing tendency to think of sex as a given reality upon which various values can be placed. If you don’t write outside of those oppositions (and challenges to them), taking them as your subject matter, than you’re not really writing a history of gender–you’re writing about a battle over maintaining or challenging roles for women and gays, and you end up reproducing the very thing that some of the participants in these debates were challenging. Again, I point you to the fact that virtually all the examples listed by you and the contributors to this thread have to do with women and their representation and social roles, and there is little attention to masculinity as a troubled category, even though there was much discussion of this during the period.

    Second, I’m surprised that you appeal to “what most people think” as the basis for your own analytical categories and definitions of subject matter. If I told you that most people believe that America was a middle class nation without substantial class conflict, I really don’t think you would be willing to take that as a given. In fact, you might suggest that that very conception of a classless society is an ideological way of reproducing class. Am I wrong?

    • Dan: You’re obviously not wrong: I don’t think the notion of a middle-class or classless America is a given, even if it’s what “most people think.” But I can easily imagine a history of the idea of the “middle class” that doesn’t reinforce such a social/cultural construction–that unmasks the very object of its study. In fact, it seems to me that this is the very premise of cultural history: to deconstruct objects of study as so many reifications.

      But my goal for my culture wars book is more prosaic: I want to write a history of the culture wars that people recognize as a history of the culture wars. But I want to offer a compelling (revisionist, perhaps) historical framework from which readers might understand the familiar. I’m writing a history of the culture wars, that includes sex/gender as one aspect of the culture wars, not a cultural history of sex and gender during the so-called culture wars (which is the book it seems you want me to write–which is a book somebody should write, but not me).

      None of which is to say that you’re wrong in your conceptualizations of gender. Nor is it to say that I should, or will, ignore masculinity as a topic.

  19. The terrific back-and-forth about replicating vs. historicizing the naturalness of the gender binary makes me wonder, what if childhood, which doesn’t seem to be implicated directly and specifically in any of the categories Andrew lists (although I’m not sure precisely what he’s thinking of in “family politics”), were thrown into the discussion? In an essay like “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick manages to complicate (in what I feel is a productive manner) the lines between essentialist and queer or feminist ideas of gender, showing how, at least in the realm of childhood, essentialist conservatives betrayed a great deal of anxiety about the basic fluidity and performativity of gender, while she also critiques the (at that time) relative banishment of gender-nonconforming children from the concerns of gay rights and queer theory. Sedgwick points out that at the very moment of triumph for the gay rights movement in removing homosexuality from the DSM, a new condition was introduced: Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood, an almost classic case of displacement.

    So perhaps (fully acknowledging the tremendous task of selection and condensation regarding the material already in the chapter), some notable flashpoints regarding childhood and gender or sexuality might find their way in? Ryan White, for instance, as a crucial part of your section on AIDS and the Reagan administration?

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