I took a gender studies course in undergrad, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth about the whole topic. Maybe it was because I was older than many of the other students, or because the instructor was poor, but the discussions we had and our reading material were both pretty weak. It left me with the idea that it was being pursued without much critical thought, like sort of group-think-ish.

But I don’t want to believe that’s an accurate impression of the subject, and I’m sure that it’s not! I’m looking for some reading material on gender studies. It can be an article whose express purpose is to inform, or it can be an article that philosophizes and speculates. Without knowing how to be more specific, I'd like it to be something that does not support the opinion I got from this poor class! (i.e. claims without justification, dismissing those who might disagree as motivated by a sinister power structure, etc)

My apologies if you find this off-topic; I thought it was at least tangentially related to social philosophy.

  • 2
    This currently reads a little bit like an excuse to criticize without really attempting to grapple with the concerns. Maybe you could specify what sort of material you're looking for here; there's a wealth of introduction to feminist/queer theory sort of texts of course -- though it sounds like this is what you had already been exposed to. Can you tell us a little more about the specific problem you're encountering here? What in particular have you been reading or studying that has made this interesting or important? What exactly are you looking for someone here to help you with or explain?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 18:56
  • @JosephWeissman I'm surprised that was your view of the post. I'm sharing my impression, and I'm saying I think I have an inaccurate view! I'll try to make it more specific.
    – Eric Auld
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 19:02
  • Okay. I mean it just seems unnecessary to inject (political?) jibes -- "swallowed by people to make them feel they're making some difference", and just in passing I note some vocabulary choices like polemic, propaganda and idioms like preaching to the choir.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 19:03
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    @JosephWeissman You know, I think you're right, those were harsh choices of words, and they are likely to offend. I've tried to make it a little softer while preserving the point of the question.
    – Eric Auld
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 19:06
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    Just in passing: there's a book Professing Feminism which might contextualize the experience you had in your class. It is a book by two self-identifying feminist scholars who criticize a certain trend in academic Women's Studies programs in the US. It was updated in 2003.
    – DBK
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 23:11

3 Answers 3


The problem with elementary gender studies courses is the tendency for their instructors to focus on political matters with little consideration given to the philosophy. As Mozibur Ullah stated, to appreciate the philosophical ideas of gender studies it is important to understand how feminism is more than simply a campaign for equal rights, and how gender is more than just a division of bathrooms. It is an epistemological, anthropological, psychological and linguistic assessment of the society in which we live, identifying the patriarchal mould in which society has formed and how it has changed over time.

There are different schools of thought on how philosophy should be taught in general. There are those who like to work from a textbook or two, that broadly and briefly cover the seminal philosophical works and the key ideas; and there are those (like myself) who prefer to avoid such books and get stuck into the juicy heart of the theory from the mouths and pens of the important thinkers themselves.

So depending on how you would prefer to approach this subject, I have different recommendations for you. In both cases, Judith Butler is a significant name. If someone is to be thanked for the subject being called "gender studies" and not simply "feminism" or "women's studies" it is Butler. Her ideas of performed gender and her psychoanalytic and deconstructive seasoning makes her work a joy to read and central to the subject. If you prefer to work from a textbook and get a rough sketch of the whole picture quickly, then I can recommend:

Theorizing Gender (Rachael Alsop, Annette Fitzsimons, Kathleen Lennon)

Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative (Gill Jagger)

If you would rather sink your teeth into the subject without the potential (over)simplification, bias and distortion prevalent in textbooks and commentaries, and if exploring related philosophical themes beyond gender theory is of interest to you, these are the first books I recommend:

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Sigmund Freud)

The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir)

The History of Sexuality (Michel Foucault)

Gender Trouble (Judith Butler)

Bodies That Matter (Judith Butler)

Undoing Gender (Judith Butler)

Embodied Selves (Stella Gonzalez-Arnal, Gill Jagger, Kathleen Lennon)

If you are not well-acquainted with philosophy, some of these works may seem a bit obscure, even deliberately obtuse. Much of the philosophy of gender studies is rooted in continental philosophy, which is not for everyone but can be introduced and discussed without too much difficulty if all you need is some background information and some familiarity with key figures and peculiar terms. You may also struggle if you have only an Anglo-American picture of linguistics, as another central theme in gender studies is rather the continental variant of linguistics comprised by structuralism and semiotics. I recommend the following books to give a broader, philosophical and linguistic background to the above texts:

The World, The Flesh and The Subject (Kathleen Lennon, Paul Gilbert)

Structuralism: An Introduction (David Robey ed.)

A Course in General Linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure)

Finally, some familiarity with Karl Marx would be useful but not essential.

  • I could also recommend works by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and so on. It is true that Lacan's psychoanalytic concepts were influential for some feminists. It is also true that Judith Butler was indebted to Derrida. Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Gayatri C. Spivak have also written extensively about some intriguing notions. However, these works might be pursued later, if your interest in gender theory extends to semiotic analysis/literary criticism and anthropology.
    – AM Douglas
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 19:04
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    Excellent answer, just what I was looking for, and I really appreciate your effort.
    – Eric Auld
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 19:39
  • My pleasure ol' chap.
    – AM Douglas
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 22:36

Gender, at least as a modern category of thought is rooted in studies of anthropology, linguistics & psychoanalysis. One might also say the fluidity of gender is a corollary of freedom as a transcendent value of Western Civilisation - which places it in a political context.

Judith Butler is a prominent gender & queer theorist, and her most famous text is gender trouble, where she examines the performativity of gender and looks at the work of feminist thinkers Simone de Beauvoir & Luce Irigaray.

One context of her thesis is a move from the body politic to the personal body - that is moving from the political representation of women as pioneered by Wollenstonecraft and the suffragettes, to the body as the ground of gender. Another context is, in at least classical philosophical terms, bears upon the terms existence & essence (both these terms go back to Aristotle) and how they are yoked together in the Existentialism of Sartre - he grants that Existence precedes Essence - the meaning of this is that one becomes oneself through the invention of values.

Judith Butler takes this a step further by making gender into a value through performance. She posits a kind of semiotics of straight identities whose difference is queer. The stability of the straight being guaranteed by the instability of the queer.

(One may see here, a correlative with Susan Sontags Notes on Camp, which posits Camp as being a queer term between the two straight ones - the Serious & the Frivolous).

Butler also reconfigures Freuds theory of sexuality so that straight identities are not the sole outcome - queer identities are possible, in fact required.

She has her critics:

[some] claim that she reduces gender to “discourse” or promotes a form of gender voluntarism. Susan Bordo, for example, has argued that Butler reduces gender to language, contending that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing Butler's conception of gender as performed.

A particularly vocal critic has been liberal feminist Martha Nussbaum, who has argued that Butler misreads J.L. Austin's idea of performative utterance, makes erroneous legal claims, forecloses an essential site of resistance by repudiating pre-cultural agency, and provides no normative ethical theory to direct the subversive performances that Butler endorses.

Finally, Nancy Fraser's critique of Butler was part of a famous exchange between the two theorists. Fraser has suggested that Butler's focus on performativity distances her from “everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves. […] Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?”

This essay is a useful precis of her work.


There was a very popular documentary about gender-theory in norway. Roughly, the moderator, a famous comedian who studied sociology, asked gender-theorists questions about gender, nature/nurture and the like. Then, he travels to the worlds most famous universities and shows the answers to scientiests mostly of biology and psychology. They show him their empirical studies, which contradict the gendertheorists.

The documentary can be watched on youtube for free, if you follow this link

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