Why When We Talk About Gender We're Always Talking About Race

You've probably heard by now the call of black womanists and feminists for intersectionality in mainstream feminism. The integration of race into how we talk about gender. It's also very likely that the only solution to this that you're familiar with is saying "especially black women" after every example of problems that women face in our society. For some reason, this isn't enough. But why not? Why do we have to talk about race anyway? Doesn't intersectionality just mean that you face racism and sexism? And it super doubly sucks?

white man running from rock into bear's mouth

Like this but a black woman and for hundreds of years

The answer is that we are never talking about gender or sex but not talking about race. How can this be? Let's delve into the past and find out!

Which came first, the sexy egg or the gendered chicken?

You've probably heard the adage "Gender is between your ears, sex is between your legs." That gender is social, while sex is biological. You probably are not surprised that it's more complicated than that. Most people, though, would wager that gender is a social system built upon a real biological basis. Sex came first, then Gender. Right? Makes sense?

Well, it's more complicated than that. According to historian Thomas Lacqueur, gender came before sex. Before The Enlightenment, there was only thought to be one sex, Male, and inferior Males just held the social position known as Woman. In fact, breast milk was even thought of as being inferior semen.

Painting of woman breastfeeding

and I'm so sorry for making you think of the implications of that

So then those people were wrong, right? We know breast milk isn't semen, and clearly women are different, right? Just because gender came first doesn't mean sex isn't real, right?

The thing is, the existing notion of gender affected how we looked for differences in sex in the first place. When you look for differences expecting there to be a mutually exclusive binary, you'll find one. But wait, why do we expect there to be sexual differences anyway? Sexual dimorphism is something we just heard was a thing, and it feels right, but where did it come from?

Havelock Ellis's Magic White Pelvis

It's the Edwardian Era, 1905 to be exact, and wow, Social Darwinism is pretty popular. The British Empire has invaded most of the world, and colonialism is dominating pretty much everywhere. White Europeans have come to see themselves as the most advanced people in the world. Evolution is getting more popular, and so it comes to be widely believed in Europe that white people are just more evolved than everyone else, and eventually those lesser peoples will all just catch up.

The gender system is also pretty stringent. We all know about those Victorian ladies who couldn't show an ankle, and the Edwardians weren't much better. Edwardian men knew that women of the world were inferior to men, and that white people were superior to everyone else.

But wait, what about if you put a white woman in a room with a black man? Who's dominant then? It's a good thing computers hadn't been invented yet or this paradox would cause some problems in turn of the century western culture.

Oh! But here comes Sexologist Havelock Ellis and his colleagues to save us!

Black and White photograph of Havelock Ellis, an old white man with a beard

Sexology was a different kind of field back then, and no, lumbersexuality was not yet a thing

Sexologists like Havelock Ellis measured the pelvises of men and women from different races and found, supposedly, that white women had larger pelvises than black women, and the difference between a white woman's pelvis and a white man's pelvis was larger than the difference between a black woman's pelvis and a black man's pelvis. Now, a hundred years ago, researchers had found that black women had the larger pelvises, and this was used to say that it was because they were over-productive animals and should be treated as such, but after abolition they needed new arguments for white supremacy so conveniently the data got flipped around.

Diagram of human pelvis

Reminder that the pelvis is more than just your crotch

Havelock Ellis argued that white women have a larger pelvis because the heads of white babies are bigger, particularly the boys. Conveniently, this also created those curvy wide hips which distinguished the women from the men. Believe or not, Havelock Ellis claimed that there was such a thing as objective beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Nah, it's all in pelvis. If a woman had a bigger pelvis, she could give birth to bigger brained babies, so men evolved to find the big pelvis more attractive, leading natural selection to pick out bigger pelvises for bigger brains. Evolution! At least according to Havelock Ellis. (Nevermind that evolution is way too slow for this theory to make any sense.)

This discovery, according to contemporary philosopher Sally Markowitz, solved the conundrum of how white women can be both inferior to men yet superior to "lesser races". She describes that Havelock Ellis's argument was that the white woman and her superior pelvis for birth-giving is the perfect complement to the white man's superior brain for committing genocide inventing new technologies. This complementary relationship, according to Ellis, is an evolutionary advantage. Therefore the stronger the difference between men and women within a race, the more evolutionary superior. Since in the Edwardian era, western culture, more so than any other, emphasized differences between men and women, Ellis's argument put Europeans at the top.

Inverse pyramid, at the top is a white man and a white women, in very different oufits and far apart from each other, next below them is a west african man and a west african women, in less different garb and positioned closer together, at the bottom is an indonesian person of unspecified gender

Diagram of Ellis's Racial Hierarchy

In Havelock Ellis's world, sexual difference is why white people reign supreme. The idea of what a woman even is is based on white definitions of womanhood. The fact that it could be used to justify white supremacy is why sexual dimorphism in humans became popular as a concept in the first place.

According to Sally Markowitz, anytime you take for granted that humans are sexually dimorphic, you leave assumed all of the stuff people like Havelock Ellis said. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll see how it colors every discussion we have about gender or sex.

Let's practice, watch these commercials for Sarafem.

Notice something? (Besides how cheesy they are?) The only women with PMDD are white. The black woman in the commercial is exempt. She's not enough of a woman to take Sarafem. Indeed, a lot of the issues that mainstream feminism focuses on, such as Hysteria, only affect white women

Why this matters

As a culture, we never had that moment where we realized Havelock Ellis was a racist asshole and threw out his ideas. Instead, we just stopped talking about them. The influence he, and those like him, has had on our science and culture is still there. Nobody has gone back and tried to reconfirm if there actually are two sexes, and had their findings affect our culture. The ideas continue on, subtly, and dangerously.

If even mentioning gender as a thing has all this stuff about white supremacy attached to it, then even if we don't think so, we're always talking about race whenever we talk about sex. And if we don't consider this, we'll be playing right into racism. And no, just saying "especially black women" does not counteract this.

Sources and image credits

Most of this article was lifted from Sally Markowitz's Pelvic Politics which is a highly recommended reading.

For more on the origins of Sex, read Making Sex by Thomas Lacqueur

For more on the Race of Hysteria, read The Race of Hysteria by Laura Briggs

All images in the diagram of sexual dimorphic racial hierarchy are from Wikimedia Commons

Man running from rock into bear's mouth is from idioms4you.com

Breastfeeding art is from Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Havelock Ellis is from Wikimedia Commons

Diagram of Pelvis is from Wikimedia Commons


Feminiscience takes concepts and information from Feminist Science Studies and makes them accessible and digestible, so you can learn about ways that you can take back and define your own body. Feminiscience is about feeling empowered to argue on behalf of your body. You know your body, you are your body. The shroud of academia sometimes convinces us that others can tell us we are wrong about ourselves. Feminist Sciences say that we actually can and should engage with scientific literature and Feminiscience is an entryway.

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