After Before and after gender

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marilyn Strathern. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.027


After Before and after gender

Marilyn STRATHERN, University of Cambridge

Response to HAU book symposium 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.

Each of these three responses recapitulates something of the hope I had for the (re) appearance of the manuscript that, with Sarah Franklin’s encouragement, became Before and after gender (2016; hereafter B&AG). I mean the hope that its odd format (the lengthy quotations from diverse works) would capture some sense of a period in its own words. Each contributor, as it turns out, describes a horizon of her own from which such a hope might also come. Margaret Jolly’s horizon in the 1970s was co-eval, if not well in advance: Australian thinking on women’s liberation was considerably in the vanguard. From the mid-1980s, Annemarie Mol recalls two texts, “hidden” as she mischievously notes in Dutch, in order to strike up a three-way conversation with B&AG as to how these might or might not have been interrelated. More or less at the same time, Sarah Green talks of an activist generation in the late 1980s that had moved on from many of the kinds of issues described in B&AG, debated as they continued to be, with new reasons for coalitions and, dramatically, separations. Those other horizons are also positions from which each speaks—with greater or lesser emphasis—of the diversity of feminist thought. I am grateful for the collegial staging of their criticisms.

What Green brings home are the limitations of a view from literature. The separatists, who might have written and argued along lines recognizable to the explicitly feminist writers on whose texts I drew, were not just writing and arguing. Formulations of autonomy aside, there was something “much more deeply and socially responsible,” as she puts it, in their reactions to their situation than they necessarily advocated. The intense disputes between women at this time sprang from tensions [410]that were or could not be simply dissipated through articulation. They required rearrangements of lives and living spaces. In short, these separatists indeed took the implications of some of the discussions on which I reported far further than B&AG imagined. More than that, although they might now seem to have been living in between-times, perhaps separatism was one way of acting out what was to become “the question of the status of binary gender” (Butler 2016: 299). At the least, Green’s recall of their self-questioning about sociality makes me ponder on the guiding schema of the book (B&AG). I seem to have been bemused by, taken too literally even, the recurrent dualisms and oppositions—all the rage in 1960s– 70s social anthropology too—in whose terms other kinds of feminist criticism was being written. The book’s schema was deep in the hetero-metaphor of “debate” (two sides implied).

While Jolly discusses B&AG’s address to feminist arguments, she also asks about the fate of various concepts to which anthropological attention was drawn at the time: nature and culture, division of labor, the arguments from biology, notions of individuation and personhood, among others. If the book’s thesis about gender really had any prescience then, what does it have to say now about these issues and their heirs? She lays out a series of twenty-first-century questions that she sees as overlapping with some of B&AG’s concerns—including subjects-and-objects, gender stereotypes, and “male-female relations as individuated sexual relations.” Needless to say, the present day issues have very much their own shape. Here her observation of the enduring awkwardness of the we/they formula is well taken. But her earlier commentaries have already been in the nature of critique, for in the way in which she interrogates the book’s concerns, and in what she foregrounds or backgrounds, Jolly draws on her own consistent engagement with feminist anthropology. Thus she remarks on how the binary alignment of (all) men and (all) women, as though they were interest groups, suppresses differences between men and between women. What she references at this point is my characterization of interest groups: hers is the pithy formulation about what gets suppressed.

The texts that Mol has brought to light hold a further challenge to the we/they formula. Basically, the demonstration that we know what or who “we” are has to be made before the argument that “we have a culture too” can get off the ground. Mieke Aerts was writing at a moment when the notion of equality as an activist aim was being questioned in favor of “difference.” Her text points to the invention of the “modern female sex” that aligned the subordination of women with inequality, and thus in terms of a debate in which the opponents invariably evoke each other. A dialogical positioning is not the difference some may have thought it was; what is crucial is the kind of activism it allows. The second text is on Mol’s own ground. Rehearsing the observation about cultural knowledge, this time to point to “biological facts,” she makes me realize how much I took for granted. The criticism is to one side of David Schneider’s (1968): it is, to put it shortly, that there are divergent modes of biological knowledge. Of course (once it is said, that is)! The appearance of a cultural trope (“biology”) is no more than that. I appreciate how she then fans out the relations between these texts and B&AG into their diverse origins and intentions, before gathering them together. As a final comment on internal diversity, she does it through disaggregating and reaggregating the Dutch terms for relating.[411]

My appreciation throughout will be evident. Also evident perhaps is what a slow learner it is possible to be, and I am struck all over again, though for different reasons than those noted in the Preface, how much one is of one’s time and place. Thinking in the third person, then, how might I have written the biographical note? “Strathern’s work on gender was embedded in feminist-driven questions being asked in the 1960s and 70s, in Papua New Guinean fieldwork and in anthropological preoccupations of this time; engagement with a fast moving literature on Melanesia took her into the 1980s, and that and teaching into the 1990s.” This obviously lacks the finesse of Green’s precise (as in precision-making) location; yet again, as Jolly observes, a linear accounting will hardly do, while its relation to the present is already queried in Mol’s query about what we are doing in relating. Regardless of time and place, one thing is sure, which is how much one owes to colleagues.


Schneider, David. 1968. American kinship: A cultural account. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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.


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