On the Origin of “Gender” and “Race”

In my social & political philosophy class, we’re beginning the course by talking about social contract theory. The other day we considered Charles Mills’ claim that a theory of a prior “domination contract” would put us “in a position to recognize gender itself as a political system established by the contract” (Contract & Domination, 90). I argued that though sexual difference and something like ethnic difference have structured relations of domination and subordination since at least Plato, “gender” and “race” were invented in the European Enlightenment, often in conjunction with some aspect of social contract liberalism, as historically and culturally specific methods of organizing white supremacist patriarchy. I want to expand on that a bit here, both for the benefit of my students (who will read this in class next week!), and anyone else who cares to read.

So: “gender” and “race” are social identities. Social identities have a particular logic: outward physical appearance (which is primarily visible, but can be auditory, even olfactory) is the basis of group classification and group membership in turn is the basis for inferences about inner cognitive, moral, and physiological (in)capacities. For example, hair texture and skin color are the basis of racial group classification, and this group classification is supposedly a reliable index of IQ or (ir)rationality. Or, secondary sex characteristics and genitalia are the basis of gender classification, and this group classification is supposedly a reliable index of (ir)rationality, emotional sensitivity, strength, and so on. Political and moral personhood is doled out on the basis of social identities. As Mills argues later in Contract & Domination, white men get full personhood, white women and nonwhite men get partial personhood, and nonwhite women are denied personhood.

There are three main features of social identities that make “gender” and “race” different than previous variations of white supremacist patriarchy, and distinctive to contractarian (classical) liberalism: (1) the relationship between outward appearance, group membership, and internal character, such that (2) all inequities are “natural,” pre-social, and thus permissible bases of civil discrimination because they are (supposedly) not generated by civil society itself (because they are ontologically and chronologically prior to civil society) and (3) gender and race determine access to civil personhood, which is an idea(l) that contractarian liberalism introduces to the world.

Re: (1)–Outward appearance is the basis of group classification, and group membership determines inner cognitive, moral, and physiological (in)capacity or (ir)rationality. This is is very different from how Plato understood the relationship between bodies and (in)capacities. Instead of making inferences about the inside based on outer expression, Plato thought the physiological interiority of the body was what determined (in)capacity for rational or irrational outer expression. Women, slaves, and many men, their bodies are so disproportionately organized they could never be trained to conform to the proportionality of the logos; and if your body isn’t proportionate, nothing that comes out of your mouth (or in your mind) can be, either. So, where social identities move outside→ inside, Plato moved inside→ outside. In pre-Enlightenment feudal Europe, kinship status, not “gender,” determined your social role and political membership. That is, your position in family structure–father, mother, son, daughter, nephew, niece, cousin, clan member, etc–that’s what determined your social and political status, NOT your gender. Sure, these roles were organized by reproductive function, but they weren’t organized by gender.

Race as a concept was created by (mostly German) philosophers (Kant, Herder, Hegel). In Kant and Hegel, the visible geographic and topographic features of Europe, Asia, and Africa were the basis for classifying people into geographically-rooted race groups, and the physical, cognitive, and moral characteristics of race groups were directly related to, indeed, caused by, the geographic and topological features of their “”native territory. The outward appearance of one’s native territory was the basis upon which Kant and Hegel inferred and attributed physical, cognitive, and moral (in)capacities to people. By the end of the 19th century, race was less a matter of geography and more a matter of individual bodies.

(2) This is key. Because contractarian liberalism presents the public sphere as a place of universal equality, law/the juridical apparatus may not cause or create inequities–it must treat everyone the same. However, it is still the case that the law *did* treat people differently: gender determined access to property ownership, voting, office-holding, just as race did. Contractarian liberalism needed to present gender and race not as its own creation, but as something given and natural. It thus presented gender and race differences as rooted in the body’s “natural” (in)capacities, not created by the law, by governmental institutions, and by economic practices. Laws thus merely managed inequities that they in no way, not at all, nuh-uh had any hand in producing or maintaining.

(3) Civil personhood is also a concept invented by European modern philosophy. Civil personhood is the idea that regardless of everyone’s varying private commitments (religion, opinion, etc.), before the law we are all the same. One vote counts just as much as the next (supposedly). Civil personhood is a level playing field: you get civil personhood! and YOU get civil personhood! EVERYONE gets civil personhood!!!—so they say. So it’s not that civil personhood is an empty, content-less category that can be applied to any particular person’s specific situation; rather, civil personhood is the (false) generalization/universalization of white masculinity. Gender and race determine access to civil personhood because the content of this category is actually whiteness and masculinity.
So, “gender” and “race” were invented in 17th-19th c Europe, as a particular method of organizing patriarchy and white supremacy, a method distinctly tailored to the needs of contractarian liberalism. As Foucault talks about extensively (e.g., in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, and Society Must Be Defended), in the late 19th century we get “sexuality” added to gender and race, because as the object of governance shifted from personhood to “life,” white supremacist patriarchy needed more nuanced tools.