The Politics of Identity and Difference: Gynocentrist vs. Polyandrogynist Visions

Within feminism, there has always been a covert tension between those who advocated more power for women as a class (gynocentrism) and those who advocated the abolition of social roles based upon biological sex (polyandrogyny). These two strategies for social transformation form two poles of a contemporary feminist spectrum. Each defines sex-based oppression (patriarchy, sexism) in its own way; each articulates a distinct feminist vision and pathway for liberation.

The gynocentrist approach is essentially a nationalist strategy. Women and men form distinct and competing bio-social classes (or “nations”); here, the nature of the oppression is the domination of one bio-social class (men) over another (women), and the nature of liberation necessarily involves a struggle for power between gender classes.

The polyandrogynist approach rejects the notion of ideal, homogeneous classes, instead focusing on the actions of heterogeneous, concrete individuals in specific situations. Where gynocentrists see the struggle between male power and female power, polyandrogynists see the struggle between those men and women who support sex-based social norms and those men and women who seek to dissolve them completely. Instead of acquiring normative powers for a particular bio-social class, polyandrogynists seek to eliminate such powers in order to allow individuals of either sex to determine for themselves what kind of life they want to lead, freed of bio-social role expectations.

Profound differences between the gynocentrist and the polyandrogynist worldviews underlie many of the debates over sexuality and sexual freedom, over the proper relation between individual choices and social norms, over the role of political movements in shaping individual identities. What should be the relation of individuals to collectivities? Is the purpose of feminism to liberate women as a bio-social class or is it to free all individuals from the fetters of imposed sex roles? Should feminism construct alternative “feminine” and “masculine” identities or should it subvert all such essentialist constructions? And what should be the role of men in feminist movements? Should they be excluded, sent off to form their own groups, should they be allowed in as equals, or should the whole question be put aside in favor of more pressing issues? Analogous questions can be asked with respect to other forms of oppression (e.g. racism, nationalism, repression of unsanctioned sexualities) and their associated strategies for liberation. These kinds of questions take us to the core of what politics is about.

Deconstruct and reconstruct: political categories & personal experience

Ultimately the answers depend upon the basic categories of our political thought, because as moral, political beings we experience and judge the world through these categories. The political categories we construct determine what we notice as we move through the world, which distinctions we make, to what aspects of the world we attribute good and evil. Each of us constructs our own categories to make meaning out of an otherwise meaningless confusion; the categories we construct are partially determined by our own histories, our current experiences and desires, as well as the categories of those around us as communicated through language. Individually and as political communities we must choose our categories very carefully: they form who we are as moral-political beings. If we strongly believe that men are inherently domineering and women are inherently nurturing, we will go about the world making these sex-based assumptions about the people we encounter, to the extent that we may not take note of the existence of domineering women or non-domineering men. When a man commits a heinous crime, there is a a strong tendency to attribute it to his maleness, to put it under the rubric “male violence,” but when members of other groups (women, racial & sexual minorities) commit similarly violent acts, we, as progressives, are properly careful not to attribute the crime to the criminal’s group membership; other, more specific explanations must be sought for why that individual did what s/he did. When we fail to note the exceptions and the resulting incongruities between our experiences and expectations, we stay stuck in our own closed world of self-justifying beliefs. We cease to learn from our experiences, we stop growing. In radical political cultures, especially in more militant ones, these basic political categories can become highly charged with moral contents and strongly reinforced, making it very difficult to break out of thinking in terms of politically correct stereotypes. And even when one has succeeded in mentally deconstructing the received categories, our political cultures, with their endless moral posturing and instant condemnation, make it difficult to publicly challenge accepted moral truths. To be sure, some political communities are worse than others in this respect, but often these social and mental constraints persist in more subtle forms in less militant circles. Wherever we are, we need to constantly question those assumptions which no longer agree with our lived experiences.

Ideal classes and concrete individuals

As radicals, most of us have inherited either directly or indirectly most of our ways of thinking and acting from the marxist tradition. The marxist tradition has in effect handed us ideal, platonic classes by way of the hegelian dialectic, with all of their terrible totalitarian, hierarchical, life-negating ramifications. In effect, the ideal political categories of marxism prevent us from seeing the concrete individuals in our lives; instead we see the classes of which each individual is but a representative. As a consequence, we often treat the people we first encounter in everyday life, not as themselves–as morally autonomous individuals with their own particular histories–but as abstract class tokens with one collective history. Politically-correct leftist political culture typically pigeon-holes people into economic classes, gender classes, racial classes, and sexuality classes. Within militant gynocentric-feminist circles it matters a great deal whether the speaker is male or female, and to a lesser extent whether s/he is gay, straight, or bisexual. The person speaking in a political meeting is no longer speaking for him/herself, but for all the political categories s/he represents. Here there is often a hierarchy of speakers paralleling a hierarchy of oppressions–those who can claim to be most oppressed by virtue of their class membership have the most moral clout, while those without such stature can be readily dismissed on the basis of their class origins: as objective oppressors, tacit sympathizers, or naive onlookers. Every argument is thereby subtly reduced to an ad hominem one, dependent upon the class position of the speaker. In many movements for social change, ideologically-based assumptions of ideal classes greatly reinforce and amplify these destructive interpersonal dynamics. In order to create liberatory alternatives to what have become traditional assumptions of radical politics, we must take a good look at the basic structure of our political thinking. We need to begin to make such a re-evaluation in feminism.

Gynocentric feminism: the construction of difference

Perhaps the majority of the feminist movement today sees itself as championing the interests of women in a world where gender issues are decided in the competition between the interests of men and those of women. For these feminists, it makes sense to organize the movement for sex-equality as a movement of women as a group struggling for their own rights. This woman-centered, or gynocentric feminism embodies a nationalist, corporativist approach to the problem of sexism in society. In its most orthodox, extreme versions, men and women constitute different competing classes engaged in a Manichean war of domination. In its less extreme versions, gyno-centrism simply construes feminism as concern with “women’s issues” and “women’s rights,” leaving the boundaries of the political struggle more open-ended and less rigidly defined.

Essentialism: biological, spiritual, and psychological. Even in its milder forms the gynocentric worldview depends upon essential, relatively immutable differences between the sexes. Typically, women are believed to be more nurturing and emotionally supportive, while men are thought to be more analytical, domineering, and violent. Some gynocentrists believe this is a consequence of women’s biological reproductive role and/or the construction of their bodies (biological essentialism). Others believe that women are spiritually more connected to the earth (spiritual essentialism) or that women’s “ways of knowing” are different from men’s (epistemological essentialism). More developmentally oriented gynocentrists believe that sex-differentiated socialization is so complete and pervasive throughout society that men and women are inevitably psychologically constituted differently as “masculine” and “feminine” beings (psychological essentialism).

Essentialism forms the metaphysical underpinnings of both gynocentrist feminism and the traditional sex role hierarchy. If women and men are not individually different in important ways, and if neither men nor women can change their basic psychological make-up, then they do form separate classes with separate interests and these interests may come into conflict. If these differences between individual men and women were no longer regarded as important or if more important differences exist within each sex-class than between them (e.g., political, cultural, religious, sexual orientation), then the entire rationale of the gynocentrist movement is undermined.

Whatever their origins, inherently different (and incompatible) desires and orientations of men and women lead to the necessity for a separate movement to advance the interests of women (since the interests of men as a group are already presumably represented in the current political and economic structures).

Separatism. Essentialism leads to separatism by providing the basic distinction on which separatism rests, by defining what counts as “one’s own kind.” In addition to essentialism, separatism also involves a strong preference for “one’s own kind.” Those who see large relatively immutable differences between the sexes, and who prefer their own sex are drawn to separatism in various degrees. At its most extreme this can mean living in a sex-exclusive environment where one need never come in contact with the other sex. It can mean simply choosing to associate only with one’s own sex in one’s personal life (as in social or political groups). It can mean participating in groups which exclude on the basis of sex or silently tolerating sexist practices by one’s political associates. Similarly, there are many different motivations for separatism: intense hatred of the other sex because of past negative experiences or intense love of one’s own sex because of past positive experiences.

Separatists of various stripes comprise a significant subculture within the feminist movement, with a considerable array of women-only consciousness-raising and study groups, cafes, bookstores, schools for self-defense and self-help, art galleries, music festivals and health collectives. In comparison there exist few if any contemporary progressive circles which exclude women.

Nationalism. Essentialism and separatism form the basis for nationalism. Nationalism in its broadest sense is the belief that those groups of people who have similar innate characteristics (such as nationality, race, sex, native language, economic class, parent religion) should band together to form power blocs to advance their group interests. Essentialism gives nationalism its metaphysics; separatism gives nationalism its emotional basis for “preferring one’s own kind” over others who are different.

The nationalist approach is “groupist”: one is born either inside or outside the group, one is given an identity as a member of the group, group oppressions are called forth to claim moral recognition, the interests of one’s own kind always supersede those of other peoples. Here there are no individuals, only members of groups. Each person is necessarily allied with and identified as belonging to one group or another: men are assumed to be male-identified and therefore allied with patriarchy, women are assumed to be female-identified and allied through “sisterhood.”

Many types of nationalism are possible; they can be based on any distinction that can be represented as innate and morally compelling: country of origin (patriotisms of all sorts); tribal, linguistic, or ethnic group (e.g. zionism, palestinian nationalism, pan-germanic nationalism); race (white supremacism, pan-africanism); religion (religious crusades of all sorts); biological sex (male chauvinism/patriarchy, gynocentric feminism) or economic class (aristocratic chauvinism, proletarian nationalism).

Nationalisms create other oppressions by setting up categories for defining people and treating them according to their national category, rather than what they’ve said or done or experienced. If the discrimination is pervasive and has deep social effects, then these categories come to be internalized by their victims. People develop primary identities which depend upon the categories of the oppressing system. The oppressive system of social roles and expectations never lets its victims forget who they are and how they must act, as women and men; as blacks and whites; as christians, jews and muslims; as upper, middle, and working class people.

Organizing along nationalist lines utilizes these previously internalized identities and strengthens them. The nationalist strategy thereby capitalizes on oppressive distinctions and norms that are already in place, creating ready-made categories for resistance and instant solidarity. Very rapidly nationalist movements can tap into deep wells of alienation, resentment, and anger. Where people felt powerless and alone, they suddenly feel empowered and part of a movement. Where one’s identity and self-worth were in question, now there is a movement to forge a common identity and history.

There is no question that nationalist-type movements can be extremely uplifting and personally empowering. However, there are deep problems which surface in the long run, after initial victories are won, and once the movement gains some power.

Double standards. By so sharply separating those of one’s own group from everyone else, nationalism creates double standards of behavior. These double standards arise from parochial habits of mind which give the benefit of the doubt to members of one’s own group and devalue the intentions of those outside the group. Those who are officially recognized as oppressed are allowed to do things that would otherwise be seen as oppressive. We readily see the sexist implications of conscious policies of sex-based exclusion when traditional men’s clubs prohibit women members, but rarely is the reverse situation criticized. Yet both policies rest upon sexist assumptions, that the worth of a potential member is to be measured according to his/her sex. While oppressive behavior by those who have been victims of past oppressions may be understandable, it should not be condoned. Previous oppression cannot serve as a justification or rationalization for oppressive acts.

Perpetuation of oppression. Perhaps the worst danger of nationalist strategies is that they do not eradicate the oppressive distinction on which the oppression is built. In the process of organizing along nationalist lines, it is necessary to create a strong group identity (“class consciousness”), and a strong sense of the Other. Gynocentrists encourage identification as women, lesbian separatists encourage identification as lesbians, black nationalists encourage identification as blacks, and the list goes on. Rather than dissolving the oppressive habit of sex-based stereotyping, the gynocentric program deepens sex-based identities and magnifies sex-based distinctions.


Paradoxically, nationalism sets up an incentive for perpetuating the oppression on which it derives its support, since its political base lies in oppression-generated national identities. Once the oppression is sufficiently ameliorated or eliminated entirely, then the movement becomes passe. Leaders of nationalist movements acquire a built-in interest in generating confrontations in order to renew group solidarity. Such inter-group struggle often masks intra-group power differentials. After power has been attained by the movement many believers are surprised to find that little actually changes in the basic power relations, except that now their leaders are members of their group rather than of a different one (e.g. female bosses instead of male ones).

Androgynist feminism: the amplification of autonomy

Androgynist feminism is an alternative to the nationalist, gynocentrist mode of political struggle. Androgynist feminists want to bring about a situation in which biological sex becomes increasingly less relevant as a social distinction. Women will gain equality only when the social categories of man and woman are finally stripped of their meaning, when it becomes largely irrelevant for the selection of life choices, when “masculine” and “feminine” traits become disconnected from biological sex. Both sexes will thereby gain choices that were not available to them before. Women will be freed to assume social roles traditionally restricted to men (e.g. having careers, developing their artistic and intellectual talents, assuming positions of public responsibility, organizing economic enterprises) as well as their traditional choices. Men will be freed to assume social roles traditionally restricted to women (e.g. raising children, coordinating life in the home, working with the poor and disadvantaged, teaching, nursing, pursuing their own emotional development). Rather than the gynocentric trajectory of separation and perpetual division, social roles will be more highly integrated, and less sex-segregated once the social, economic, and psychological barriers come down.

This vision is no less radical than its nationalist counterpart; it involves no less struggle around issues of power and economic gain (freedom has both a political and material basis), but the terrain on which it is fought is fundamentally different from that of gynocentrism. Rather than a struggle between innately different biosocial groups, the struggle is between those who desire the freedom to determine their own life choices and those who would impose choice-denying social norms in the name of the collective. Rather than a parochial struggle between various pressure groups each representing their “own people,” the androgynist approach advocates universal freedoms to be extended to all people as potentially autonomous individuals.

To androgynist feminists it makes more sense to organize according to a shared vision of the future (patriarchy vs. sex-equality) rather than according to the categories of past oppressions (men vs. women). Reconstructing the categories of the previous oppression and creating a woman-centered identity moves profoundly in the wrong direction–destroying choices available to women by advancing new ideologically determined norms, rather than expanding real life-choices.

In many ways the debate parallels that between the marxists and the anarchists a century ago over the role of hierarchy and centralized power within the revolutionary movement. The marxists said yes, we need centralized authority structures, but they’ll disappear after the revolution; the gynocentrists say we need separation and woman-identified power for a while until women are equal, then we will dismantle the structure. The matriarchical order that some gynocentrists fantasize about is the sex-role equivalent to the dictatorship of the proletariat; were they to attain power, the results would be similar: more oppressions, more hierarchies of power legitimated by past oppressions.

Biology should not be destiny. In contrast to gynocentric feminism, the basic assumption of androgynist feminism is that the social role differences between the sexes have little or no basis in biological differences; they are social constructions which can be changed by concerted effort. Women and men are now on the whole socialized differently, but there do exist dominant women and submissive men. The problem needs to be recast in terms of how do we go about dismantling all power-based relationships, regardless of the sex of the dominant partner. For the most part, this strategy will benefit women, because most women in contemporary society tend to have less power in relationships. It will also benefit those men who are in similar situations. Dismantling of power structures empowers relatively powerless women and men, while taking power away from relatively powerful men and women. On a larger social scale, this strategy involves dismantling hier-archies of power in the workplace, in the political arena, in all the larger institutions of social life. Since women currently tend to be towards the bottom of hierarchies of power, a general democratization of power will for the most part benefit them.

Means and ends. As women and men in feminist organizations, we should seek to construct the social relations which mirror the kind of integrated, sex-equal society which we want to bring about. This will take honest, concerted efforts by both men and women to communicate and to change the ways in which we interact. We will necessarily have to find creative ways to empower and encourage those who have been put down in the past, and it will be a long, hard struggle.


If we take Emma Goldman’s insistence on the consistency between means and ends, there should be no double standards in our organizations: if we do not want ourselves excluded from organizations on the basis of biology, we should not discriminate on that basis. This is not to say that groups which happen to be all-female or all-male are inherently bad, or that mixed groups are always necessarily better (It is the nationalists who always judge groups by the composition of their membership). It just says as matters of policy we should include/exclude people by their actions or chosen beliefs, not by accidents of birth. There may be some circumstances in which single sex groups may be necessary, but we should not quickly jump to exclusionary policies for all sex role issues before examining possible non- or less exclusionary alternatives. Difficulties for some group members in dealing with those of different sex, race, class, or sexuality should be seen as attitudes to be overcome by everyone involved, not as situations to be rationalized away or avoided by the group through blanket exclusions. If we cannot construct sex-equality in our own mixed sex organizations, how can we hope to do it on a society-wide scale? Clearly this is the challenge we must face if we seek to change society at large.

Freedom to define oneself: the construction of identity

If we are to believe seriously in the possibility of fundamental change, then we must build into our movements for social change those social relations which we seek to implement in the future society. The purpose of remembering the past should be to anticipate the future rather than to wallow in past oppressions. Gynocentrist feminism is determinist, its basic categories locked into the injustices of the past; androgynist feminism is constructivist, mindful of history but always oriented towards future liberation.

The politics of making biology irrelevant to destiny is a politics of choice, a struggle for freedom. If we act always to expand choice for more people, we will foster self-development, self-direction, and personal autonomy. Far from being a reformist program, expanding significant life-choices for most of the society will necessarily entail radical political, economic, and psychological changes. Freedom has a material basis (if you don’t have money, you don’t have economic alternatives), a political basis (if you don’t have political power, all of your alternatives are subject to decisions by others), and a psychological basis (if you don’t have a sense of who you are and what you want, you can’t effectively exercise decision-making autonomy). Women will only develop the means to exercise their autonomy fully if they are given real life-choices they themselves make as individuals, not if they are presented with a prefabricated model of womanhood.

Gynocentric feminism denies this choice on a very fundamental level, that of personal identity. Gynocentric feminism asserts that one’s identity is fixed by one’s biological sex, and that one has no role in constructing the core of one’s identity. In contrast, androgynous, role-choice feminism asserts that both women and men have some (albeit limited) choice, that they are in some part responsible for the situation they find themselves in and that they have some (albeit limited) means of changing it. Power relationships are relationships between (at least) two comple-mentary roles: those of domination and those of submission, and the relationship breaks down once either party ceases to play the appropriate role. Each of us participates in many different types of relationships involving power, and consequently most people have mixed roles: dominant in some relations, neutral in others, submissive in still others. Both have the option to leave or restructure submissive roles or to reject domination in favor of equality.

Androgynist, role-choice feminism undermines mystical, innatist identity formations by asserting that we construct our selves. Here the important sources of solidarity are the values which we have chosen for ourselves which we share in common with other people, not those values imposed upon us by traditional social roles or by “movement identities.” We find others like ourselves, rather than molding ourselves in others’ images. This process of self-construction determines who we are and how we experience the world around us.

Should political movements consciously construct personal identities of their members? Should “movement identities” be reinforced and encouraged? Ultimately the answer to this question lies in the relative values placed on group formation and cohesion vs. the autonomy of the freely associating, self-constructing individual. Nationalist political strategies depend completely upon the construction of a common, national identity, a collective consciousness. Individualists can only see such a political construction of individual identity as a loss of self-determination and a diminution of individual consciousness. We well know the terrible effectiveness with which totalitarian, identity-manipulating political strategies mobilize to take power. We have yet to see a radical, cooperative, individualist alternative which could self-organize on a similar scale to diffuse power and to amplify freedom, but such alternatives are surely possible and remain to be fully developed and articulated.

Postscript: men and feminism

This article has been difficult to write for many reasons. It’s very hard to express criticisms knowing the kind of vilification which will be provoked. I feel as many others who have been marginalized by feminist orthodoxy, but without even the saving grace of being female or lesbian or a member of some other widely recognized oppressed group. No doubt many gynocentrists will immediately dismiss the perspective simply because I am male and therefore in their eyes have no standing to comment on feminist issues, let alone to criticize their assumptions.

Even those of us who have been sympathetic to feminist ideals all of our lives and have been active for many years find it difficult to feel at home in the movement, to be accepted. Most feminist women have deeply ambivalent attitudes towards participation by men. A small but significant number of feminist activists hate men in general; some refuse to talk with men at all, even those who are feminists. Most of the activist groups which deal with gender issues are women-only, so many of the discussions around these issues are carried out in political circles closed to us. Often, we are told to start our own men-only groups, but to many of us this is as much an anathema as women-only ones. In addition, some of us do not identify as men, as inconceivable as that might be to those with strong gender-identifications. The insistence by some women separatists that men should form their own groups or caucuses is an external imposition of an unwanted identity.

During the debate around the Dworkin-McKinnon pornography ordi-nance I did some work with Cambridge Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT), which was at the time exclusively women. To my extreme dismay, several months after the referendum, FACT held a panel discussion of the lessons learned in the battle, and excluded men, even those who had worked on the campaign, from attending. Ironically, much of FACT’s core membership was composed of S/M lesbians, who have also been marginalized and excluded from much of feminism. Recently I did phone tree work (in opposition to the Operation Rescue blockades of abortion clinics) for a pro-choice group, only later to discover that their meetings are closed to men. In these situations, one cannot help but feel used. This is exactly the sort of sexist marginalization that many feminists correctly criticized some New Left organizations for practicing. Now, tragically, feminist groups engage in the same patterns, and rationalize it in the same ways: we have other more pressing issues to deal with.

All the double standards and standard rationalizations not-withstanding, it is difficult to see these exclusions as motivated by anything but a deeply sexist way of seeing the world. Simply put, a man, whatever his persona, his political beliefs, his intentions, is excluded because of innate characteristics he cannot change. No person is perfect, but each person has some capacity to learn from mistakes and to change the way s/he behaves. Yes, all people should have the absolute and inviolable right to associate with whomever they please, but the rest of us do not have to morally approve of the basis of the association. In my mind, exclusions based upon biological sex are as deeply reprehensible as those based on race, or on any other accident of birth.

In political meetings, especially those with a high proportion of separatists, I have often heard very negative generalizations being made about all men, and almost never are these generalizations challenged. The solution here is not to suppress these grievances, because in many cases there are genuine, specific problems which need to be addressed. The task here is to get those who have complaints about the behavior of some individual or group to be as specific as possible about the behavior which needs changing, and to educate those whose behavior is offensive. Too often these issues are discussed in separate sex-segregated groups, making it impossible for men, who are usually the objects of criticism, to hear, respond and learn from their critics. How else are behaviors to be changed, if not by honest communication? I have heard women feminists say that they don’t want to teach men how to behave (“women have been taking care of men all their lives”), and then in the next breath complain about unintended behaviors which they found offensive. Rather than focusing on the gender of the person, it is much more important to concentrate on the behavior: what aspects make it offensive, what assumptions lie underneath it? Standards of mutual respect and proper conduct within a community are thereby made explicit and applied to all members, whoever they are, male or female.

We also need to be more careful with our language. Much of the language used by contemporary feminist activists betrays some very crude and sexist generalizations (as in the construction “male violence”). And this comes from within a movement which championed the critical analysis of language. Imagine for a moment the reactions to constructions such as “black violence” or “homosexual violence.” Immediately we see the racist and anti-gay implications of these conflations, and many will be quick to challenge the speaker, whoever s/he is, but when “male violence” is used in a feminist context, there is too often only silent acquiescence.

Out of these and other experiences, I have resolved not to participate in any movement which does not at least on its face treat me as an equal. I urge others, male or female, black or white, gay, bi, or straight, differently abled, whatever your situation, to do likewise; to leave movements which judge on the basis of innate characteristics and to form organizations which treat all people with mutual respect, as equal individuals. Only when we ourselves refuse to make judgements about people based on innate characteristics, will we be able to move toward the kind of society where we can be ourselves, unchained from the prejudiced, stereotypical expectations that others have of us.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.