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When this newsletter was first launched, I asked people on Twitter what they’d like to have me write about. More than a few people mentioned Vexy Thing. That is the title of the 2018 book I wrote about “gender liberation.” It is the most theoretically complex and “academic” of my books, and therefore the hardest to talk about in a concise form. But because it is Women’s History Month, I’m going to try to bring a bit of it into my thoughts about this season of historical reflection.

Women’s History Month has its origins in International Women’s Day, which was initially a socialist holiday. Over time, as it became mainstream, it lost the specific association with working-class and colonized women. Now it’s commonly understood that Women’s History Month is necessary because, due to sexism, women are chronically underrecognized as important historical actors.

In my work, I focused on the structure of patriarchy rather than the bigoted attitudes that fall under the category of sexism. I wanted to go beyond attitudes to understand how we get unequal outcomes. The attitudes matter, of course, but they are not enough to explain the operation of a system.

In Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, I describe modern patriarchy as having been established through three structures: Personhood, Property, and Sovereignty. Shaped by the Enlightenment, the establishment of the modern national state, and the age of conquest and the dawn of colonialism, these structures organized how human beings would fit into society. Due to how European nations would dominate the globe, these ideas shaped the entire world.

Personhood is not simply being a person, but being recognized as having status before the law as a person. Property is fairly obvious, but it is worthwhile to remember that once there were people who were classified as property and prevented from holding property or having property ownership recognized. Sovereignty is about national power, backed by force, to which individuals who were “patriarchs” could turn to have their rights recognized. Of course, belonging to the nation as a citizen or as someone recognized before the law was essential to being able to rely upon sovereign authority.

When the United States was established, personhood, property, and sovereignty were overwhelmingly limited to white men—though there were always a few exceptions. I mention that because, historically, patriarchy was not available to all men. And women, based upon their social location, had different relationships to it. Some, attached to patriarchs, were excluded from public life and yet beneficiaries of the status of patriarchs, for example.

The contemporary era has made patriarchy more complicated. Power still tends to aggregate in white, cisgender heterosexual, affluent men, but elites are a much more diverse bunch than in the past. There are even women who occupy the traditional roles of patriarchs. And yet, gender still shapes how opportunity is distributed. Anyone who does not qualify as the ideal man is on a slippery slope to disadvantage, with those of us who are furthest from it due to gender, gender expression, wealth, race, sexuality, or ability most likely to be made vulnerable.

We are called to acknowledge that gender always matters, but we must not allow the existence of powerful and wealthy white women or people of color to serve as a stand-in for fighting for a more just or equitable society and world. And we must not allow growing diversity among elites to distract us from raising questions about gender and gendering.

The stratification of racial groups has always been imbued with gendering. The description of nonwhite people as failing to fit gender categories and ideals is hundreds of years old. This idea is found in politics, philosophy, and pseudoscience. One political strategy for nonwhite groups has been to prove themselves as fully capable of meeting these ideals. Another is to question the ideals altogether. Politically, I fall into the latter camp. Kind, respectful human relation is my priority, not which legal rituals one undergoes, or which church one attends (if any.)

So, for Women’s History Month, in addition to naming extraordinary women, let’s make sure that we examine how gendering affects people around us. In particular, I think we ought to draw attention to arguably the most gender-vulnerable people in our present moment: trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary children and their families who are being legally targeted in multiple states for not complying with traditional rules about gender.

There is no objective meaning to traditional gender categories. They were simply used to sort people into higher and lower status and into particular sectors of the economy and home. To those who cry “But our bodies!” I respond: Our human bodies, endlessly varied, only very roughly fit into the couple of categories that we have devised. The binary is a choice, not a truth. And even if you believe in the binary of bodies, how those bodies are clothed, named, and located when urinating is unequivocally a social choice.

To study gender and gendering means letting go of many social structures that have been made to seem “natural.” And it also means questioning the very idea that “natural” is superior. We are creative and distinctive beings, always changing.

Gender isn’t going anywhere. We are deeply attached to it. We won’t be free of gender, but we can “free” gender. The gendered virtues—valor, leadership, softness, nurturing, being maternal, protection, and physical strength—can belong to everyone. And should.