It is proverbial that gender is universal and never changes. “Boys will be boys”, we mutter, when our boy gets into a fight at school. There is a famous opera – premiered in Vienna, as it happens – entitled Così fan tutte, which is equivalent to saying “Women are all like that”.
This traditional common sense about gender, we can now see, had social consequences. It pre-empted questioning about exactly why little Johnny was in a fight, or whether Dorabella really is like that, i.e. faithless and stupid. That lack of questioning preserved – as Mozart’s opera does in its finale – the patriarchal order, with all its exclusions and violences that the opera does not mention.
Patriarchal ideologies in different societies confronted feminist activism, when claims for gender justice emerged a century or more ago around the colonial world – from thinkers like Kartini, He-Yin Zhen, Huda Sharawi – as well as in the imperial powers. One of the major requirements for gender justice, therefore, was an intellectual challenge to the concept of gender hierarchy as fixed, natural and universal. Continue reading