Differences within

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Annemarie Mol. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.026


Differences within

Feminism and us

Annemarie MOL, University of Amsterdam

Comment on Strathern, Marilyn. 2016. Before and after gender: Sexual mythologies of everyday life. Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Franklin. Afterword by Judith Butler. Chicago: HAU Books.

HAU has asked me, along with a few others, to respond to a text that was finished in 1974 and then got hidden away in a drawer. In 2016 it was published under the title Before and after gender (Strathern 2016). In the intervening time the author, Marilyn Strathern, has written a great deal more that is vibrant, sharp, inspiring, elusive, and so on: A grand oeuvre that forms no whole. Instead, there are many threads and trails running through it. One of these is a critical interference with all dreams of wholes and holisms. Grateful for that gift, I will here take it as a license to not respond to Before and after gender in its entirety, but rather to take out a few bits of it.1 These I will bring in conversation with snippets of two other texts that (most likely) have also been hidden from your eyes for decades, not because they were left in a drawer but because they were published in Dutch.

In the plot that I foreground here, Before and after gender tells how women and men—no! That is an anachronism, the text speaks of men and women—are separated out in different ways and with different weight in different cultural traditions. To the wide readership that Strathern hoped to reach, she tried to bring home the message that knowledge matters. What we know about men and women does not coincide with what the sexes really, truly are, but is rather a particular way of envisioning them. The overriding message is that we have a culture, too, and this does [402]not just affect daily life habits but also our deepest convictions—including those that are feminist. A quote:

Many times has the demand, or the plea, been published that women should not be treated as sex objects but as persons. . . . What I think is not obvious is that the acknowledged stereotype (women are sex objects) and the presumed “reality” (women are persons and should be treated as such) both spring from a common source. (Strathern 2016: 233)

This “common source” is a “mode of symbolizing” that—in our culture—also pertains to other things.

Relations between men and women are symbolized through the same images by which we build up our concepts of the natural, physical world, “reality,” and mankind’s place in it. Subject and object: the actor and the acted upon. (Strathern 2016: 233)

Unlike the concepts that philosophers used to dream about, the terms in which our knowledge is cast are not able to travel everywhere. Rather than universal they are local: “I simply want to point to the cultural subjectivity of our own perceptions” (Strathern 2016: 233).

Among “other people,” the men/women difference is not similarly linked to the terms in which the natural world is addressed, nor does it form an analog for a subject/object distinction or resonate with the difference between acting and being acted upon. “Other people” reckon with differences between the sexes, too, but to them these differences are not similarly tied up with their profoundest cultural hang-ups. To substantiate this claim, Strathern tells compelling stories about what men and women are made to be among Mae Enga, Gonja, Gisu, and a series of other cultural groups that she learns about from the anthropological literature. Here, I will not repeat those stories and neither will I try to add to or to question them. Instead, I will attend to what Strathern’s technique of cultural contrasting makes of “us.” For this is what I have to offer, as in my own work I have studied differences within.

In Before and after gender Strathern tells stories about others so as to turn us into just one particular cultural group among many more. Insisting that our perceptions are marked by “cultural subjectivity” she situated us next to (rather than above) all the “others” whom anthropologists describe. In other words, Strathern makes us amenable for comparison. She offers a version of the “provincializing Europe” move that a few decades later Dipesh Chakrabarty insisted we should make. To feminists of the early seventies Strathern held up this caveat:

When we talk about the liberation of male-female relations, and cry that one sex should acknowledge the other as free, of equal human potential, and such, we are employing concepts of the person which belong in a very particular way to our own intellectual traditions. (Strathern 2016: 234)

In this way, Strathern toned down the contentious character of a contentious position. Feminists may think that they are opposing “our” tradition when they argue that women should be recognized as “having equal potential” (to men, that is). But from the vantage point of cultural comparison theirs is a position within. For, whether they want it or not, feminists share a culture with their sexist opponents. That is to say: they share with them the terms of “our own intellectual tradition.”[403]

A fight is backgrounded here and a commonality brought to the fore. This happened in a different way in the first texts that I will now introduce into the conversation. In 1986, Mieke Aerts published Gewoon hetzelfde of nu eenmaal anders: Een feministisch dilemma. A few years later, it appeared in English translation under the title Just the same or just different? A feminist dilemma (Aerts 1991). Like Strathern’s treatise, it addressed the question of what it is to claim “equality” between the sexes and situated this in a tradition—but not just an intellectual one. In the early eighties, a serious number of feminists were no longer backing the call for equality. They argued that calling for equality means that men become the standard to which women are rendered “equal.” We would do well, they said, to revalue the specific and underappreciated qualities of women. Aerts asserted that the clash between calling for equality and insisting on difference might seem harsh but that these calls have a history in common. A quote (in a slightly amended translation):

Against the backdrop of the ideal of civil equality and the undermining of the patriarchal authority of men (housefathers), the subordination of women (housewives) came to appear as inequality. Here, of course, lie the roots of the “equal rights” tradition. The invention of the modern female sex at the end of the eighteenth century was initially a competing program of action, aimed against the ideal of equal rights. But only the generalisation of femininity into a societal category allowed for the rise of a broad (mass)movement of women, which in its turn offered a new breeding ground to the struggle for equal rights. (Aerts 1991: 29–30)

The ideal of equality between the sexes only made its historical appearance when feudalism waned. Equality between citizens then became a widespread ideal, and this prompted the question of whether women might be citizens, too. Put differently, as kings and other overlords lost their father-like authority, it made sense to ask if male heads of household should also lose theirs. It was in response to this that “the modern female sex” was invented, Aerts contends, as “a competing program of action.” Hence, the “the modern female sex” was defined in opposition to the ideal of equality from the start. However, the new-fangled idea that “women” are a category of persons who have something in common allowed such “women” to gather together and form a social movement. And only the collective strength of this movement gave public strength to the ideal of equality. In this story, what the opponents share is a political history in which they stand in dialogical juxtaposition and evoke each other. Below, I will explore how this text relates to that of Strathern, but first I will make a detour.

For this, I return once again to Before and after gender. At the time the book was written, feminists were opposing the idea that, in terms of the time, “biology is destiny.” They argued that the different societal positions in which men and women find themselves couldn’t be explained by the differences between male and female bodies. Instead they are just cultural differences. Strathern warned against the presumption that gender differences being “cultural” meant they were easy to change.

To say that gender differences between men and women are basically cultural and not biological in origin does not lead to the automatic conclusion that they [gender differences] are therefore malleable and weak. (Strathern 2016: 276)[404]

In the decades that followed crucial biological sex differences, notably the facts of parenthood, indeed proved to be a lot more malleable than their cultural counterparts—something that Strathern convincingly documented in, for instance, After nature (Strathern 1992). But interfering in bodily reproduction and changing biology is not the same. For, as Strathern pointed out in Before and after gender, the term biology does not point to life itself, but to life interpreted.

As soon as we come down to what a particular society knows or holds about biological facts we are dealing with interpretations of these facts. (Strathern 2016: 22) In line with this, Strathern was not taken by the sex/gender distinction, in which sex stood for biological differences between men and women, and gender for the cultural configurations toppling this up. Though useful in some contexts, Strathern wrote,

this form of analysis is itself a cultural construct: that is, a scientific viewpoint teaches us to classify things accruing to their real, material, empirically demonstrable properties and to regard other attributes as metaphysical. The realities of the chemical composition of men and women’s bodies, the function of hormones, the genetic determinants of mental powers, these are endlessly described. We regard these things as basic facts. The emphasis of this sentence should probably on the regard rather than on the basic facts. (Strathern 2016: 23)

Here, Strathern brings biology home to its culture. She insists that taking biological facts to be basic, and then assuming that “culture” is added to them only bespeaks our propensity to distinguish real material essences and cultural attributes. Once again this is a strong move. A comparative perspective suggests that the nature/culture distinction is a categorical tactic of our culture, which others do not similarly make. But while battling universalism, what does it make of us? As she outlines contrasts with others, Strathern writes that in our culture “the chemical composition of men and women’s bodies, the function of hormones, the genetic determinants of mental powers” are regarded as basic facts. But are they? Or does this sentence unwittingly reconfirm a cliché about us—a dominant “interpretation”— that deserves to be questioned? At this point I will introduce the second Dutch text promised into the conversation. In 1985, I published Wie weet wat een vrouw is: over de verschillen en de verhoudingen tussen de wetenschappen. This appeared with an added introduction in English translation as Who knows what a woman is: On the differences and the relations between the sciences (Mol 2015). This text starts from the conviction that our conceptual schemes deserve to be interfered with. Pointing to internal contradictions, differences within, where coherence is expected, is one such interference. Take the facts of biology. These may appear to be shared cultural tropes but one branch of biology does not even underscore the facts of another. A quote:

Genetics, socialization theory, psychoanalysis, anatomy, and endocrinology all know what a woman is, but they know it in different ways. If you seek to comprehend these differences, the problem rises that each of these branches of science diversifies and branches out again. It is possible to call “endocrinology” a branch of science, but there are also “branches of endocrinology.” The overall difference between [405]endocrinology and anatomy, which is that the former is concerned with hormones and the latter with the spatial organization of organs, cannot be called either a peaceful coexistence or a flagrant opposition without also siding with one of the branches of endocrinology. Abstaining from knowing what a woman is allows you to realize that different branches of science all claim to know this, sometimes borrowing from and building upon one another, sometimes contradicting and fighting each other, and sometimes without being impressed by or even taking notice of each other. (Mol 2015)

Our sciences, then, form a complex force field. The political promise of this assertion was that if endocrinology does not accept the facts of anatomy, and vice versa, then feminists did not have submit to “biology.” Did we so far indeed “regard these things as basic facts”? Well, then it was time to stop that and instead feel free to compare and evaluate diverse biological modes of knowing and concomitant techniques and technologies.


If these are the participants, there are various ways to set up the conversation. Allow me to make use here of two Dutch words for relation. The first is verband — connection—you may see the etymological proximity to the English “bandage” and “bond.” And there certainly is a verband to discern. For instance, there is a shared disinvestment in the sex/gender distinction; all three texts try to add complexity to ongoing feminist debates, amending contemporary feminist ideas about struggle. Strathern points out that feminists share with their opponents the terms of our intellectual tradition. Aerts points out that clashing terms/ideals (equality versus difference) may be dialogically related and jointly allow for a women’s movement against the residues of feudalism and patriarchy. And I, finally, trace fights stretching out from the smallest branches of science, via the techniques and technologies linked up with them, through to diverse social practices. All three of us argue that what is fight in one site, elsewhere may be a coalition.

The second Dutch word I would like to introduce is verhouding. This does not denote a resonance or an analogy (as does verband) but evokes a more active kind of relating. Two entities that have a verhouding affect each other: for instance, the lengths of the lines in a triangle stand in a verhouding to each other, which means that if one of them changes, the other does so, too. People may have a good or bad verhouding, following from either one of them complimenting or rather harshly critiquing the other. What, then, about the verhouding between these texts? For one, they were situated in different sites, targeting different audiences. Strathern, writing in English, sought to address a wide audience but this audience would necessarily have been confined to those who might pick up a book in English. When it comes to it, did her us allude to “the English” only? Or did it include all those living in Britain, or also Americans and even readers spread throughout the former colonies? Aerts and I, in our turn, read English (if, for obvious reasons, not Before and after gender) but wrote our pieces for Dutch language journals that were a product of leftist and feminist intellectual activism. We addressed feminist readers in the Netherlands and, just maybe, Flanders. This audience we reached very well. Both the articles just quoted were used for years in courses of Women’s [406]StudiesVrouwenstudies, that is—but (translated or not) they didn’t affect the “international” discussions that we had in mind.

But the verhouding under exploration here is not just one of adjacent geographical regions; there is also a disciplinary story to tell. The anthropologist foregrounded the contrasts between us and others. She undermined the illusion of universality. The historian showed that contrasts among us were dialogically related and unfolded dynamically over time. She connected differences within to the possibility of change. The science studies scholar imported political lingo to talk about (branches and subbranches of) the sciences. Her insistence on differences within sought to explode the alleged coherence of our allegedly common knowledge.

A final relation I want to mention here, a verband as well as a verhouding, is that these texts shared a passion. For whether stressing commonalities among us, or foregrounding so far hidden differences within, we all hoped to make a difference. This formed the horizon of our academic work. Strathern sought to add a sense of cultural specificity to feminist calls for equality, while insisting on the relevance of knowledge and terminology. Aerts meant to enrich feminist debates about essences with an acute sense of strategy. And I wanted to open up biology’s dealings with the sexes to feminist interference. Hence, we were doing academic work that was, in one way or another, feminist at the same time.2

Which leaves us (us?) with the question how to do that now. For somewhere along the way, the meaning of “struggle” and “fight” as well as that of “difference” and “others” and “us” have all transformed beyond recognition. But how?

That is an altogether different story—far more difficult to tell.


For comments and support I thank Rebeca Ibáñez Martín, John Law, Else Vogel, and Emily Yates-Doerr. For their varied inspiration, thanks to Marilyn Strathern and Mieke Aerts.


Aerts, Mieke. 1991. “Just the same or just different? A feminist dilemma.” In Sharing the Difference: Feminist debates in Holland, edited by Joke Hermsen and Alkeline van Lenning, 23–31. London: Routledge.

Mol, Annemarie. 2014. “Language trails: ‘Lekker’ and its pleasures.” Theory, Culture & Society 31 (2–3): 93–119.

———. 2015. “Who knows what a woman is: On the differences and the relations between the sciences.” In MAT: Medicine Anthropology Theory, http://www.medanthrotheory. org/read/4955/what-woman-is.[407]

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “An awkward relationship: The case of feminism and anthropology.” Signs 12 (2): 276–92.

———. 1992. After nature: English kinship in the late twentieth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Before and after gender. Sexual mythologies of everyday life. Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Franklin. Afterword by Judith Butler. Chicago: HAU Books. http://haubooks.org/before-and-after-gender/.


Annemarie Mol
Department of Anthropology
University of Amsterdam
PO Box 15509
1001 NA Amsterdam


1. For an earlier attempt to respond to some of the threads in the rest of Strathern’s work, see Mol (2014).

2. For Strathern’s analysis of the problems called up by this combination, see Strathern (1987).