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The Heterosexual Imaginary: Feminist Sociology and Theories of Gender
Author(s): Chrys Ingraham
Source: Sociological Theory, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jul., 1994), pp. 203-219
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Accessed: 24/10/2010 20:29
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The Heterosexual Imaginary:
Feminist Sociology and Theories of Gender*
Russell Sage College
This essay argues that the material conditions of capitalist patriarchal societies are
more integrally linked to institutionalizedheterosexuality than they are to gender.
Building on the critical strategies of early feminist sociology through the articulation
of a materialist feminist theoretical framework, the author provides a critique of
contemporarysex-gendertheory.She argues that the heterosexualimaginaryinfeminist
sociological theories of gender conceals the operationof heterosexualityin structuring
gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an organizing
? . . every sociological concept and thesis, as well as the overall patterning of these
concepts and theses, is potentially open for reconsideration. . . With the emergence
of feminist sociological theory, the critical emphases in sociology are strengthenedby
an insistence that sociological work be critical and change-oriented... in an intensely
reflexiveway towardssociology itself (Lengermannand Niebrugge-Brantley1990:318).
We mustproduce a political transformationof the key concepts, that is of the concepts
which are strategicfor us (Wittig 1992:30).
Feminist sociology, once at the vanguard of academic feminism, is showing signs of
losing its conceptual and political edge. Feminists once sought to effect transformative
social change by making visible the investment of sociology in practices contributing to
the reproduction of gender inequality and relations of ruling.1 But in the 20 years since
feminists announced the need for sociology to attend to gender as an organizing social
category, gender studies have been gradually canonized; more than that, the founding
concept, gender, has come to be taken as obvious. From textbooks to research studies to
theory, there is little or no debate over what is meant by gender. In this essay I make the
argument that feminist sociological understandings of gender need to be reexamined for
the ways in which they participate in the reproduction of what I call "the heterosexual
imaginary." The "imaginary" is a Lacanian term borrowed by Louis Althusser for his
theory of ideology. Defining ideology as "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their
real conditions of existence" (1971:52), Althusser argues that the imaginary is that image
or representation of reality which masks the historical and material conditions of life. The
heterosexual imaginary is that way of thinking which conceals the operation of heterosexuality in structuring gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an
* I would like to
express my appreciationto Steve Seidman for his kindness and courage. His hardwork and
dedication, from conception to completion, made this symposium possible. Additional considerationgoes to
Alan Sica and the editorial board for their commitment to the advancementof all knowledges in sociology.
And, finally, I would like to thankRosemaryHennessy for her keen theoreticalinsights and unwaveringsupport.
Address all correspondenceto Chrys Ingraham,Russell Sage College, Departmentof Sociology and Criminal
Justice, Troy, NY 12180.
1 The phraserelations
of ruling can be attributedto DorothySmith. Accordingto Smith, "'Relationsof ruling'
is a concept that grasps power, organization, direction, and regulationas more pervasively structuredthan can
be expressedin traditionalconcepts providedby the discoursesof power. I have come to see a specific interrelation
between the dynamic advance of the distinctive forms of organizingand ruling contemporarycapitalist society
and the patriarchalforms of our contemporaryexperience"(1987:3).
Sociological Theory 12:2 July 1994
? AmericanSociological Association. 1722 N Street NW, Washington,DC 20036
organizing institution. The effect of this depiction of reality is that heterosexualitycirculates as taken for granted, naturallyoccurring, and unquestioned,while gender is understood as socially constructedand central to the organizationof everyday life. Feminist
studies of marriage,family, and sexual violence (which might seem to cover this ground)
invariably depend upon the heterosexual imaginary deployed in a variety of heteronormative assumptions. Heteronormativity-the view that institutionalizedheterosexuality
constitutes the standardfor legitimate and prescriptivesociosexual arrangements-represents one of the main premises not only of feminist sociology but of the discipline in
general. As such, it underlies and defines the direction taken by feminist sociology and
by gender studies in particular.
If this is to change, feminist sociology must develop a critique of institutionalized
heterosexualitywhich does not participatein the heterosexualimaginary.To interruptthe
ways in which the heterosexual imaginary naturalizesheterosexualityand conceals its
constructednessin the illusion of universalityrequiresa systemic analysis of the ways in
which it is historicallyimbricatedin the distributionof economic resources,culturalpower,
and social control.
It will be the work of this essay to call for a reconsiderationof gender as the key
organizing concept of feminist sociology. The main argumentof this article is that the
materialconditions of capitalist patriarchalsocieties are more centrally linked to institutionalizedheterosexualitythan to gender and, moreover,that gender (underthe patriarchal
arrangementsprevailingnow) is inextricablyboundup with heterosexuality.Rearticulating
some of the critical strategies of early feminist sociology within a materialistfeminist
framework,it is possible to both redressand disruptthe heterosexualimaginarycirculating
in contemporarygender theory.
Gender, or what I would call "heterogenders,"is the asymmetricalstratificationof the
sexes in relation to the historically varying institutions of patriarchalheterosexuality.
Reframinggender as heterogenderforegroundsthe relation between heterosexualityand
gender. Heterogenderconfronts the equation of heterosexualitywith the natural and of
gender with the cultural, and suggests that both are socially constructed, open to other
configurations (not only opposites and binary), and open to change. As a materialist
feminist concept, heterogenderde-naturalizesthe "sexual"as the startingpoint for understanding heterosexuality, and connects institutionalizedheterosexualitywith the gender
division of labor and the patriarchalrelationsof production.
Materialist feminism developed in response to a series of global social changes and
associatedcritical currentsin intellectualand political work. Westernmaterialistor marxist
feminists attemptedto expose and disruptthe interfaceof patriarchalsocial structureswith
multinational(particularlyU.S.) corporatecapitalism'sexpandingsphere of accumulation
and exploitation (Barrett1980; Hennessy and Mohan 1989; Kuhn and Wolpe 1978; Mies
1986). Complaintsabout the global effects of patriarchyand capitalismprovokedprotests
from non-western or U.S. Third World feminists about western feminism's own racist,
classist, and colonialist assumptions in attemptingto "speak for" all women (Minh-ha
1989; Mohanty 1988; Sandoval 1991; Spivak 1985, 1988). These criticisms were buttressed by escalating claims in the west that feminism privileged the interests of white,
middle-class, heterosexualwomen at the expense of an emancipatoryprojectwhich could
intervene in white supremacist, classist, and heterosexist social arrangements(E. Brown
1989; R. Brown 1976; Bunch 1976; Carby1982; Collins 1991; CombaheeRiver Collective
1983; Davis 1981; Giddings 1984; hooks [sic] 1984; Lugones 1989; Moraga 1986; Rich
1980; Spelman 1989). This call for an internalre-evaluationof western feminism intersected with the circulation of newly forming critical knowledges such as Afrocentrism,
postcolonial criticism, poststructuralism,neo-marxism, and postmodernism,and brought
about a rethinkingof feminist concepts and politics.
Throughoutthe strugglesand debateswithin feminismover the past 20 years, materialist
feminists have continuallyworked to develop an analytic capable of disruptingthe takenfor-grantedin local and global social arrangementsand of exposing the economic, political,
and ideological conditions upon which exploitation and oppression depend. Materialist
feminism, however, is not to be confused with vulgar Marxism, with what is frequently
referredto as base-superstructure
Marxismor economic determinism.Rather,materialism
here means a mode of inquiry that examines the division of labor and the distributionof
wealth in the context of historicallyprevailingnationaland state interestsand ideological
strugglesover meaningand value. Utilizing both marxistandfeministcritiquesof ideology,
materialist feminism breaks away from the growing trend toward discursive politicspostmodernand poststructuralistfeminism-and takes as its object the "social transformation of dominant institutions that, as a totality, distribute economic resources and
culturalpower asymmetricallyaccordingto gender"(Ebert1993:5). Committedto systematic analysis, materialistfeminism is
an inquiryintendedto disclose how activitiesareorganizedandhow they arearticulated
to the social relationsof the larger social and economic process . . . how our own
situationsareorganizedanddeterminedby social processesthatextendoutsidethe scope
of the everydayworld and are not discoverablewithinit (D. Smith 1987:152).
This form of analysis assertsthe systematicoperationof historicallyspecific social totalities
that link the local to the macro level of analysis. It is not, however, a "totalizing"theory
in that it does not generalize its findings to apply to absolutely all phenomena, nor does
it argue from an abstractor objectivist stance.
As a form of "criticalpostmodernism"(Agger 1992), materialistfeminism argues that
the nexus of social arrangementsand institutionswhich form social totalities-patriarchy,
capitalism, and racism-regulates our everydaylives. They are not monolithic, but consist
of unstable patternsof interrelationsand reciprocaldeterminationswhich, when viewed
together, provide a useful way of theorizingpower and domination.To theorize in terms
of social totalities is to have a way of making sense of events in relation to pervasive
social patterns. Rape and domestic violence, for example, can be seen as the effect of
social structuresthat situate men in a hierarchicalrelation to women and to each other
according to historical forms of social differentiationsuch as heterosexuality,with its
historically specific heterogenderedand racial components. According to Dorothy Smith,
"relationsof ruling"such as patriarchy
bringinto view the intersectionof the institutionsorganizingandregulatingsociety . . .
a specificinterrelation
betweenthe dynamicadvanceof thedistinctiveformsof organizing
formsof ourcontemporary
capitalistsociety andthe patriarchal
experience. . . a complexof organizedpractices,includinggovernment,law, business
andfinancialmanagement,professionalorganization,andeducationalinstitutionsas well
as the discoursesin texts thatinterpenetrate
the multiplesites of power(1987:3).
Significantin Smith's theory of ruling is her referenceto forms, complexes, and "multiple
sites of power." It is evident that for Smith, capitalism and patriarchyare organizing
structures which are varied and multiple, institutionally as well as textually. Before
returningto the role of ideology in materialistfeminist work in this essay, let us first
addressthe struggles over concepts such as capitalismand patriarchy
Theories which focus on capitalismand patriarchyas social totalities are becoming less
and less acceptable. In recent years an importantdebate about the explanatoryreach of
such frameworkshas challenged feminists to defend or rethinkmany of their assumptions.
In particular,many postmodernistand poststructuralisttheoristshave criticized the use of
"masternarratives"such as marxism, as "totalizing"and have disputedany theory which
conceptualizesin terms of social totalities, such as capitalismor patriarchy.For example,
Jean Francois Lyotard argues against master narratives,but his argumentconfuses everchanging and historically specific social totalities with totalitarianismand (for some)
positivism. These ideological debates are crucial and consequential. When critiques of
Westernculture's masternarrativesprivilege the local and the particularat the expense of
making connections, these argumentsendanger any effort to conceive a "social change
movement designed to remake the world" (Agger 1992:113). Furthermore,they fail to
acknowledge the significant rewriting social totalities and marxism have undergone in
recent years (Hennessy 1993; Walby 1989).
It is my position thatwe should continueto critiquecapitalismand patriarchyas regimes
of exploitation which organize divisions of labor and wealth, nationaland state interests,
and those ideologies which legitimize the orderingand justificationof these totalities and
the productionof social hierarchiesand difference. In particular,we need to examine their
varying historical, regional, and global conditions of existence. For instance, capitalism
in Japanis not the same as capitalismin the United States, even thoughthey are interrelated
and reciprocal, and produce similar effects. They emerge from different historical and
materialrelations of productionand thereforedefy reductivegeneralization.
Patriarchyis also historically variable, producinga hierarchyof heterogenderdivisions
which privileges men as a group and exploits women as a group. It structuressocial
practices which it represents as natural and universal and which are reinforced by its
organizing institutions and rituals (e.g., marriage). As a totality, patriarchyorganizes
difference by positioning men in hierarchicalopposition to women and differentially in
relation to other structures,such as race or class. Its continued success depends on the
maintenanceof regimes of difference as well as on a range of material forces. It is a
totality that not only varies cross-nationally,but also manifests differently across ethnic,
racial, and class boundarieswithin nations. For instance, patriarchyin African-American
culturediffers significantly from patriarchyin other groups in U.S. society. Even though
each group shares certain understandingsof hierarchical relations between men and
women, the historical relation of African-Americanmen to African-Americanwomen is
dramatically different from that among Anglo-EuropeanAmericans. Among AfricanAmericans, a group which has suffered extensively from white supremacistpolicies and
practices, solidarity as a "racial"group has frequentlysupersededasymmetricaldivisions
based on gender. This is not to say that patriarchalrelations do not exist among African
Americans, but that they have manifested differently among racial-ethnic groups as a
result of historical necessity. Interestingly,racism has sometimes emerged in relation to
criticisms of African-Americanmen for not being patriarchalenough by Euro-American
standards.As a totality, patriarchyproduces structuraleffects that situate men differently
in relationto women and to each other accordingto history.
To critique the way gender is theorized in feminist sociology, a materialistfeminist
mode of inquiry begins by investigating foundationalassumptions. This investigation is
followed by an examination of what is concealed or excluded in relation to what is
presented.A materialistfeminist critiqueattemptsto determinethe ideological foundations
of a particularset of knowledges and the interests served by the meanings organizing a
particulartheory. For example, theories which foregroundand bracket off its link with
heteronormativity-the ideological productionof heterosexualityas individual, natural,
universal, and monolithic-contribute to the constructionof (patriarchal)heterosexuality
as naturaland unchangeable.
To examine the ways in which feminist sociology reproducesthe heterosexualimaginary
requires a theoretical frameworkcapable of investigating the interests and assumptions
embedded within any social text or practice. This mode of inquiry would make visible
the frames of intelligibility or the "permitted"meanings in constructionsof gender and
heterosexuality.More than this, it would connect heterosexualityand intereststo a problematic. As Althusser has argued, "A word or concept cannot be consideredin isolation;
it only exists in the theoreticalor ideological frameworkin which it is used:its problematic"
(1982:253). To determinea text's problematicis to reveal anotherlogic circulatingbeneath
the surface. It appearsas the answer to questions left unasked. It is not that which is left
unsaid or unaccountedfor, but that which the text assumes and does not speak. What is
required, then, is a process of analysis capable of inquiring into the power relations
organizing the allowed as well as the disallowed meanings in an effort to expose the
artificialityof the theories and ideologies organizingthe use of particularconcepts.
The practice of ideology critique used by Marx (1985, 1986) and rewrittenas symptomatic reading by Althusser (1968) has had a significant influence on sociology, most
recently in the work of Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990). Ideology critiqueseeks to demystify
in ways in which dominant or ruling class ideologies are authorizedand inscribed in
subjectivities, institutionalarrangements,texts of ruling, various culturalnarratives,and,
in this case, feminist sociological theories of gender. Like those taken-for-grantedbeliefs,
values, and assumptions encoded as power relations within social texts and practices,
ideology is central to the reproductionof a social order. Because it produces what is
allowed to count as reality, ideology constitutesa materialforce and at the same time is
shaped by other economic and political forces. As Althussertheorizedit, ideology is the
"'lived' relationbetween [persons]and their world, or a reflectedform of this unconscious
relation"(1986:314) or imaginary.
This theory of ideology addressesthe meaning-makingprocesses embeddedwithin any
social practice, including the production of (social) science. Inherently contradictory,
capitalistand patriarchalsocial arrangementsare in a continualstate of crisis management.
The work of dominantideologies is to conceal these contradictionsin order to maintain
the social order.At the same time, however, these breaksin the seamless logic of capitalism
and patriarchyallow oppositionalsocial practicesand counterideologiesto emerge.
Centralto a materialistfeminist analytic is its critical focus on ideology (see Althusser
1971; D. Smith 1987). Critique is a mode of inquiry which makes use of what is and
what is not said in any social text, and theorizes the disjuncturebetween the two. Of
particularimportanceis the examinationof what is missing from the text. What is unsaid
can be read symptomatically2to reveal the organizingproblematic,or how the text raises
certainquestions while suppressingothers. The unsaid of a text also reveals the interests
served by what is left out. This understandingof absence speaks to the boundaries
established by any conceptual or theoreticalframework,which distinguish that which is
addressedand that which is constructedas outside the limits of the theory at hand. What
2 This refers to Louis Althusser's theory of symptomaticreading, which he ultimatelyattributesto Marx: "A
word or concept cannot be considered in isolation; it only exists in the theoreticalor ideological frameworkin
which it is used: its problematic.... [it] is not a world-view. It is not the essence of the thoughtof an individual
or epoch which can be deduced from a body of texts by an empirical, generalizingreading;it is centredon the
absence of problems and concepts within the problematicas much as their presence; it can thereforeonly be
reachedby a symptomaticreading"(1968:316).
is unsaid is as constitutive of the problematicas what is said. Critiqueis a "decoding"
practice which exposes these textual boundariesand the ideologies which manage them,
revealing the taken-for-grantedorder they perpetuateand opening up possibilities for
changing it. Materialistfeminism then situatesthese ideologies historicallyand materially
in relationto the division of labor and the relationsof production.Finally, critiqueinquires
into the political consequences of theorizing from this site of opposition. This approach
attempts to put into crisis those organizing ideologies which naturalizeor universalize
particular sets of power relations implicated in the production of exploitation and
Feminist sociology has long made use of critiquein orderto pressurethe discipline for
its participationin relations of ruling. Many critical works served as significantinterventions in the business-as-usualof sociology, and stand as landmarksfrom which to extend
the reachof feminist theory. Althoughthe following sections of this essay examine feminist
sociology for its participationin the heterosexualimaginary,I think it only fair to say that
some of the challenges to disciplinaryauthorityby feminists were made at great risk and
that much can be learned from these early critiquesof sociology. The strategiesused by
feminist sociologists created the opening for furthercritical social inquiry and should be
considered in their historical and materialcontexts.
Feminist sociology has been a powerful force for change since its emergence in the 1960s
and 1970s. In additionto its significantcontributionto gender studies, feminist sociology
has provided a critical evaluation of mainstreamsociology. Contesting the foundations
upon which the productionof sociological knowledges depends, feminist sociologists have
provideda profoundcritique and rewritingof both the theoreticaland the methodological
assumptions of mainstreamsociology (Acker 1973; Bart 1971; Bernard 1973; Deegan
1978; Hacker 1969; Hughes 1975; Long Laws 1979; Millman and Moss Kanter 1975;
Oakley 1974; Reinharz 1983, 1984; Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1971; D. Smith
1974, 1975, 1987, 1990; Spender 1985; Stanley and Wise 1983). In a recent essay,
PatriciaLengermannand Jill Niebrugge-Brantley(Ritzer 1990) discuss the defining characteristicof feminist sociological theory:
Feministsociologicaltheoryattemptsa systematicandcriticalreevaluationof sociology's
core assumptionsin the light of discoveriesbeing made within anothercommunityof
discourse-the communityof those creatingfeministtheory(1990:316).
Central to this description is a reading of feminist sociological theory as responsive to
"discoveries"and critical insights emanatingfrom feminist theory and research. Feminist
sociological theory has continually pressuredthe discipline to account for its political
investments. In this regard, a key feature of feminist theory in sociology has been its
exposure of sociological inquiry as value-ladenand implicatedin ruling practices. If it is
to continue as a vital critical force in the discipline, feminist sociology must attend to
contemporarytheoreticaland political debates, even those which questionthe problematics
of feminist sociology. Recent trends in social thought, especially in what is becoming
known as queer theory or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered
studies, are challenging the
in general.
Critiqueswhich reveal the implicit perpetuationof a normativeheterosexualityrequire
new ways of thinking for feminist sociology. Significantinsights for this kind of analysis
can also be found, however, in the works of those whose critical sociology questions the
assumptionsof the discipline. Of particularimportanceare the contributionsof feminist
sociologists whose analyses provide the possibility for examining the circulationof the
heterosexualimaginary in sociology, even as their work also bears the marks of participating in it.
Two feminist theorists who have been highly influentialin this regard are Shulamit
Reinharz and Dorothy Smith. Reinharz argues that sociology is a field of study which
demonstratesits conservative politics by "reinforc[ing]the currentorder and its values"
(1983:165) ratherthan taking into account "specific historical, cultural, ideological" contexts (1983:162). Arguing from a sociology of knowledge perspective, Reinharz asserts
the importanceof explaining "the relationshipbetween the knowledge produced or accepted in a particularsociety at any time, and the other dimensions of that society"
(1983:163). She is referringto mainstreamsociological knowledge, but her critique can
be applied as well to feminist sociology. For instance, feminist theories of gender which
posit males and females, masculine and feminine, heterosexualand homosexual as opposites participatein dominantways of thinkingwhich organize all areas of difference as
hierarchicaland oppositional binaries. To produce theories of gender which bracket off
heterosexualityas a social organizing structureis to "reinforcethe currentorder and its
values" by participatingin the productionof "acceptable"knowledges or ideologies. This
closes off the possibility of theorizing the complex ways in which gender is tied to
heterosexualityas institutionalizedand hegemonic, as organizing the division of labor,
and as instrumentalto capitalism and patriarchy.If heterosexualityis assumed to be the
naturalattractionof opposites, somehow outside of social production,it does not require
explanation.Feminist theories of gender, as well as common sense and acceptableknowledges, reflect these assumptions. By not considering the "historical,cultural, and ideological" contexts in which gender circulates-the heterosexual imaginary-feminist
theories of gender not only are contradictorybut also leave heterosexualityas the unsaid
on which gender depends.
Gender cannot be simultaneouslyan achieved status and an organizing concept for a
"naturallyoccurring" heterosexuality. If both gender and heterosexuality are socially
produced, then feminist sociology should be engaging with both of them at that level.
Heterogenderand its correspondingheterosexual imaginary are among those "other dimensions" which can affect the organization of knowledge and the reach of feminist
Dorothy Smith (1974, 1987, 1990) also takes the discipline to task, in this case for
participatingin the production of "objectified modes of knowing characteristicof the
relations of ruling" (1990:13) and for using ideas exclusive to a "male social universe"
The profession of sociology has been predicatedon a universe groundedin men's
experienceand relationshipsand still largely appropriated
by men as their "territory."
Sociology part
its relevances(1990:13).
Smith critiques the disjuncturebetween women's experience and the prevailing "male"
sociological frameworks,raising feminist sociology to a new height by makingvisible the
significance of knowledges pertainingto women which sociology has typically ignored.
She theorizes the silences in sociological theory as implicating sociology in male domination, and rewrites sociological practiceto attendto women's everyday lives.
The neglect of women's everyday lives by sociology is of central concern to Smith,
who argues for a sociology from the standpointof women. This means not only analyzing
women's daily lives and practicesbut also placing women within the largersocial context
of capitalist and patriarchalrelations. Smith aims to explicate the "actualsocial processes
and practices organizing people's everyday experience from a standpointin the everyday
world"(1987:151). Her argumentdiffers from Reinharz'sin that she links the organization
of women's lives to political economic dynamics. Of particularimportancehere is Smith's
contributionto a theory of the everyday. In rewritingMarx for a feminist sociology, she
opens up the study of the everyday as organizedby relationsof ruling.
In her contributionto the study of women's invisible labor and everyday experience,
however, Smith makes repeated reference to the work of mothering and housework as
largely overlooked by social scientists.
Expandingthe concept of work for our purposesrequiresits remakingin more ample
and generous form . . . to include all the work done by women to sustain and service
their and men's functioning in the wage relation . . . (1987:165).
In her references to motheringand women's domestic labor as enablingthe work of men,
heterosexualityonce again appears as the assumed and unacknowledgedstructureorganizing women's lives as well as the division of labor. Heterosexualityis a natural or
universal condition that Smith's theory of gender assumes. Although Smith makes great
strides in shifting the starting point of feminist sociology to incorporatea version of
ideological critique, her own work reveals a political investment in a heteronormative
social order, which by definitionmaintainsthe very relationsof rulingthat she tries to put
into crisis.
Feminist sociologists have challenged sociology to account for its "politics"-its investment in practices and knowledges organized hierarchicallyalong lines of power. As
can be seen in the work of Reinharzand Smith, these analyticalstrategiesindeed create
important conceptual and political openings, but by participatingin the heterosexual
imaginarythey also reproducesome of the very social conditionsthey seek to interrupt.
In additionto Reinharzand Smith, otherfeministshave challengedthe discipline (Abbott
1992; Lengermanand Niebrugge-Brantley1990; Maynard1990). Their groundbreaking
efforts have also paved the way for a critiqueof feminist sociology. Yet at the same time
they, too, participatein the reproductionof the heterosexualimaginary.In their overview
of the contributionsof feminist sociology, Lengermannand Niebrugge-Brantley(1990)
outline the ways feminists have challenged sociology, beginning with questioning the
absence of women and of knowledges related to women in all areas of sociology. This
heuristic is particularly important for questioning the circulation of the heterosexual
imaginary in feminist sociology.
A particularlyimportantpatternthat these authorsidentify in feminist sociology is the
contestationof the andronormativestartingpoint of sociological inquiry, which relegates
all otherknowledges to the marginsand therebyreinforcespatriarchalauthorityand value.
For example, studies of mothering, teaching, child care, caregiving, and other aspects of
the "domestic sphere" have been either ignored or devalued by mainstreamsociology.
Patriarchy,however, is not only andronormative;it is also heteronormative.Those aspects
of the division of labor which are trivialized and neglected in sociological research and
theory are also those practices which count as "women's work"in heterogenderedsocial
arrangements.By shifting the focus from gender to heterogenderas the primaryunit of
analysis, institutionalizedheterosexualitybecomes visible as centralto the organizationof
the division of labor. This shift also reveals the ways in which the heterosexualimaginary
depends on an abject "other,"which is regulatedas deviant. This "other"consists of any
sexual practice which does not participatein dominant heterogenderarrangementsand
thereforedoes not count as legitimate or normal.
When I say that the critical insights of feminist sociologists can be employed to
interrogatethe heterocentrismof feminist sociology, I am not talking only about the
marginalizationof lesbian/gay/bisexualknowledges from sociological inquiry, but also
about the way in which heteronormativeassumptions organize many conceptual and
professionalpractices. For instance, many social science surveys ask respondentsto check
off their marital status as either married, divorced, separated, widowed, single, or (in
some cases) never married.Not only are these categoriespresentedas significantindexes
of social identity;they are offered as the only options, implying that their organizationof
identity in relation to marriage is universal and not in need of explanation. Questions
concerning marital status appearon most surveys regardlessof relevance, in some cases
as "warm-up"questions. The heteronormativeassumptionof this practiceis rarely,if ever,
called into question; when it is questioned, the response is generally dismissive. Heteronormativityworks in this instance to naturalizethe institutionof heterosexuality.
For those who view questions concerning marital status as benign, one need only
consider the social and economic consequences for those respondentswho do not participate in these arrangements,or the cross-culturalvariationswhich are at odds with some
of the Anglocentric or Eurocentricassumptionsregardingmarriage.All respondentsare
invited to situate themselves as social actors accordingto their participationin marriage
or in heterosexualityas a "natural"and monolithic institution. This invitation includes
those who, regardless of sexual (or asexual) affiliation, do not consider themselves
"single"or defined in relation to heterosexuality,and do not participatein these arrangements. Above all, the heterosexualimaginaryworking here naturalizesthe regulationof
sexualitythroughthe institutionof marriageand state domesticrelationslaws. These laws,
among others, set the terms for benefits such as tax, health, and housing on the basis of
marital status. Rarely challenged except by nineteenth-centurymarriagereformers and
early second wave feminists (Bunch 1974, 1976; Harman 1901; Heywood 1876; MacDonald 1972; Sears 1977; Stoehr 1979; Wittig 1992), these laws and public policies use
marriageas the primaryrequirementfor social and economic benefits ratherthan distributing resources on some other basis, such as citizenship.
Heteronormativesociology, then, plays its part in what Dorothy Smith has conceptualized as textually mediated social practice.
Such textualsurfacespresupposean organizationof poweras the concertingof people's
activitiesand the uses of organizationto enforceprocessesproducinga versionof the
worldthatis peculiarlyone-sided,thatis knownonly fromwithinthe modesof ruling,
and thatdefinesthe objectsof its power(1990:84).
To not answer such seemingly innocent or descriptive questions is to become deviant
accordingto sociology's enactmentof modes of ruling, which signal to respondentsin a
varietyof ways-from theory to surveys-what counts as normal.Underthese conditions,
sociology is a political field of study, invested in the reproductionof a heteronormative
social order, and closed off to struggles over the constructionof sexuality and to the
explorationof social relations in all their layered and complex configurations.
Dorothy Smith's theory of the everyday world as problematiccan be particularlyuseful
for investigatingthe circulationand productionof heteronormativityin sociological practice. As a mode of inquiry which begins with people's everyday lives, it illustratesand
explains how individual lives are organized by extralocal social arrangements.For instance, to study how institutionalizedheterosexuality organizes everyday professional
activities in sociology, considerthe case of the two nontenuredfacultymemberscompeting
for the same job in a departmentwhich was allotted funds for only one. One candidate
was a heterosexualman; the other, a lesbian. Two weeks before the final decision is made
concerninghiring, the heterosexualman announceshis engagementto a local woman and
sends out wedding invitationsto all membersof the department.Well situatedwithin the
heterosexualimaginary,members of the departmentdo not view this event in relation to
the decision concerning the job but ratherrespond to it as a celebratoryoccasion and a
chance to have a good time. The effect of this event on the materiallife of the candidates
is never considered.
Weddings, like many other rituals of heterosexual celebration such as anniversaries,
showers, and Valentine's Day, provide images of reality which conceal the operationof
heterosexuality both historically and materially. In this sense they help constitute the
heterosexual imaginary's discursive materiality.When used in professional settings, for
example, weddings work as a form of ideological controlto signal membershipin relations
of ruling as well as to signify that the bride and groom are normal, moral, productive,
family-centered,good citizens, and, most important,appropriatelygendered. (Or I should
say "heterogendered"?)Although these patternspervadethe cultureat large in everything
from Tums commercials to the "Style" section of the New YorkTimes-not to mention
their prolific use in soap operas and prime time television-little work has been done to
critically examine their reasons for being and their effects.
Otherexamples aboundregardingthe heteronormativityor heterocentrismof sociology
(e.g., privileging marriedcouples in hiringpractices, sanctionsagainstresearchon lesbian/
gay/bisexual/transgenderedpeople, use of heteronormativeconcepts to describe nonheterosexual relationships, invisibility of nonheteronormativeparenting practices), but to
critique them is beyond the scope of this essay. Certain questions can be raised here,
however, as a way to convey the extent to which heterosexualityremains an unexamined
issue in the discipline. Of particularinterest from a materialistfeminist perspective are
the complex ways in which institutionalizedheterosexualityhelps guaranteethat some
people will have more class status, power, and privilege than others. Sociologists need to
ask not only how heterosexualityis imbricatedin knowledges, but how these knowledges
are related to capitalist and patriarchalsocial arrangements.How does heterosexuality
carryout their projectboth ideologically and institutionally?How do so many institutions
rely on the heterosexualimaginary?Consideringthe rising levels of violence and prejudice
in U.S. society, how are we to understandthe social and ideological controls regulating
sexuality? What would a critical analysis of institutionalizedheterosexualityreveal about
its relationship to divisions of labor and wealth, national and state interests, and the
production of social and economic hierarchies of difference? And, finally, how will
sociology change if we shift away from a heteronormativeor heterocentricsociology
througha critique of heterosexuality?
Lengermannand Niebrugge-Brantleypoint to the contributionof feminist sociology in
critiquingthe discipline for its lack of social activism. Sociological studies rarelyexamine
how women's lives are organized by dominant ideology and practice, or what role
sociological inquiryplays in the maintenanceand productionof social inequality.Feminist
sociologists insist that the discipline be reflexive, accountablefor its politics, and actively
engaged in reducing any oppressive consequences of its practices.
Reclaiming the critical legacy of feminist sociology not only promises to advance the
theoreticalreachof sociological inquiry,but also restoresthe activistorientationof feminist
sociology. By questioning the starting point of gender studies while denaturalizingthe
institutionof heterosexuality,feminist sociology once again can become politically reflex-
ive and active in ideological struggle. The following section is a step toward initiating
this process throughan exploratoryexaminationof contemporarygender texts.
Over the past quarter-century,feminist sociologists have made an enormouscontribution
to the study of gender across all social institutionsand categories of analysis, theorizing
everythingfrom gender-basedpower arrangementsto sex differencedevelopment. Moreover, they have pressuredthe discipline to account for the ways in which it is implicated
in the reproductionof gender oppression and exploitation. As a formidable force for
change, feminist sociology, with its counterpart,the Section on Sex and Gender of the
ASA, has established itself as one of the largest and most successful areas of inquiry in
the discipline.
Feminist sociology, however, is losing its impetus for interventionor for ideological
debate. Recent works within areas of inquirycovered by the sociology of sex and gender3
generally assume a level of agreementon what gender is, how to study it, and why it is
important. Gender, family, and introductorysociology textbooks, journal articles, and
conference presentationsin recent years show little variation in definitions of sex and
A samplingof gender texts within sociology reveals the presence of a dominantframework in gender theory. Sex is typically defined as "the biological identity of the person
and is meant to signify the fact that one is either male or female." Genderis describedas
"the socially learned behaviors and expectations that are associated with the two sexes"
(Andersen 1993:31). The idea of sex as biological and gender as sociocultural was
originallytheorizedby Oakley (1972) and then again by Gould and Kern-Daniels(1977),
and has become the standardfor most of sociology. In additionto MargaretAndersen's
widely used text, Thinkingabout Women,LaurelRichardson'sThe Dynamics of Sex and
Gender describes sex as "the biological aspect of a person"and gender as the "psychological, social, and culturalcomponents... an achieved status"(1981:5). LauraKramer's
The Sociology of Gender employs a similar version, arguing that "physically defined
categories are the sexes" and that the "system of meaning, linked to the sexes through
social arrangementconstitutes gender"(1991:1). Likewise, in Clare Renzetti and Daniel
Curran'sWomen,Men, and Society, sex is a "biological given . . . used as the basis for
constructinga social category that we call gender"(1989:2). In each case, sex is distinguishable as biology, implying that it is natural, while gender is viewed as learned or
achieved. Even in essays offering an overview of the field of gender studies within
sociology, gender is perceived as an establishedconcept in a discipline which needs only
to take it more seriously as a central category of analysis (Abbott 1992; Maynard1990).
These patternssuggest that the biological-culturaldifferentiationof sex and gender has
become "normalized"in sociology generallyand among feminist sociologists in particular.
Althoughinclusionof gender studiesin "legitimate"sociology may be cause for celebration
for some, the lack of debate over such a crucial concept as gender-not to mention its
companionconcept, sex-should be groundsfor concern among feminists. Acquiescence
to an unexamined gender concept goes against the grain of two of feminist sociology's
foundingprinciples-to keep a critical eye on the discipliningof knowledge and on forms
of gender bias.
3 These areas include marriageand family, human sexuality, homosexuality, and any other category which
makes use of sex or gender for its secondarylevel of analysis.
Consider some of the contradictionspresent in the acceptanceof these theories of sex
and gender. As Maria Mies (1986) points out, separatingsex from gender reinforces the
nature/culturebinary, opening the study of sex to the domain of science and closing off
considerationof how biology is linked to culture. Sex, as a biological category, escapes
the realm of constructionor achieved status, even though it is "defined"or "constructed."
Because we are always engaged in giving meaning to the naturalworld, how we do that
and to what end are questions of major significance. Sex as a category of analysis can
never exist outside prevailing frames of intelligibility. It is a concept that is related to
ways of making sense of the body, often by those-sociologists and biologists-who have
a great deal of authorityin the creationof knowledges. As a socially constructedcategory,
sex must be scrutinizedin relation to the intereststhat its definitionfurthers.That is, as
sociologists we need to ask what ends are served by constructingsex as "the division of
humanityinto biological categories of female and male" (Macionis 1993:350).
The institution of science and its authorityin relation to the productionof biological
knowledges have far-reachingeffects. It is one thing to assert that two X chromosomes
producea female and that an X plus a Y chromosomeproducesa male. But what happens
when introductorysociology texts claim that it is a "hormoneimbalance"which produces
"a humanbeing with some combinationof female and male internaland externalgenitalia"
(Macionis 1993:351)? What investment or perspective is present in connoting this hormonal and genital configurationas an "imbalance"?Or, reading the unsaid here, what
constitutes balance according to these knowledges? Clearly, a society of scientifically
defined and authorized males and females is considered the "natural"order of things.
How, then, do we make sense of cross-culturaldifference in the "treatment"of sex
variation?For example, the Dine (Navajo) view persons born with a combinationof male
and female genitalia as the exemplification of complete humanness, not as evidence of
some dis-order(Geertz 1973).
Contemporarysex-gender ideology provides limited options for how we organize sexuality, but expanding these options is not simply a matter of attendingto marginalized
sexualities. Instead, it seems to me that we need to question our assumptionsabout sex
and gender as to how they organize difference, regulate investigation, and preserve
particularpower relations, especially those linked to institutionalizedheterosexuality.
All of the institutionsinvolved in the productionof sex as a biological category defined
as male or female, where each is distinct and opposite from the other, are participatingin
reproducinglines of power. Claims that XX is female and XY is male are just that:
scientific claims about the naturalworld, authorizedby the ruling order and processed
through organizing structureswhich assign meanings based on frames of intelligibility
alreadycirculatingin the culture at large. What counts as normaland naturalor as "fact"
comes out of ways of making sense already ideologically invested in the existing social
order. Often it closes off our ability to imagine otherwise. Any manifestationwhich does
not fit the facts is renderedabnormal,deviant, or (worse) irrelevant.Consider,for instance,
that the same institutionswhich organize these knowledges also historicallyneglected the
study of women, scientifically justified the inferiorityof nonwhite people, and claimed
that social Darwinism was fact. These "findings"were coherent with dominantways of
thinking about sex, race, and class, and worked in their historical moment to legitimize
prevailingpractices and policies (Gould 1981; Takaki 1990).
Currently,with the rise of the lesbian/gay/bisexualrights movements, many "factual"
knowledges concerning gender, sexuality, desire, morality, sex differences, labor, and
nationality have been put into crisis. The more these critiques challenge the taken-forgranted concerning sex and gender, the clearer it is that current ways of thinking in
sociology do not adequately account for sex variation. This investment in the dominant
constructionof sex begs the question of what interests are served by the disciplining of
knowledge in sociology and what social arrangementsthat disciplining makes possible.
The uncriticalparticipationof feminist sociologists in these knowledges implies the possibility that there exists an investment in "naturalized"social arrangementsat the risk of
renderinginvisible the intereststhat organizethese ideas and benefitfrom theirproduction.
At the present, the dominantnotion of sex in feminist sociology depends upon a heterosexual assumptionthatthe only possible configurationof sex is male or female as "opposite
sexes," which, like otheraspects of the physical world (e.g., magneticfields), are naturally
attractedto each other. Masking the historicalrelation of sex to history and to heterosexuality is guaranteedby what I have defined as the heterosexualimaginary.
Gender,as the culturalside of the sex-genderbinary,is frequentlydefinedby sociologists
as either achieved or constructedthrougha process of "socialization,"wherebymales and
females become men and women attainingopposite and distinct traits based on sex. In
addition to appearing in prominent texts and articles on gender, this understandingof
gendercirculatesin introductorysociology texts. For instance, Hess, Markson,and Stein's
Sociology asserts that gender is made up of "femininity and masculinity as achieved
characteristics"but that maleness and femaleness are "ascribed traits" (1989:193). Although this particulartext makes reference to gender as variable cross-culturallyand
historically, its reliance on an unsaid heterosexualdualism implies a static or normative
understandingof gender. In addition, this definitionof gender illustratesthe need for the
concept of heterogenderas a more appropriatedescriptionof the relationbetween sex and
gender. Finally, this explanation does not account for the "necessity" of gender. This
theory of gender as an "achieved"statusdoes not addressto what ends gender is acquired.
Nor does it account for the interestsserved by ascribingor assigning characteristicsbased
on sex. In other words, this text, as well as many others, does not examine what historical
and materialarrangementsorganize or are organizedby gender. By foregroundinggender
as dependenton the male-femalebinary,the heterosexualassumptionremainsunaddressed
and unquestioned.
A similar approach is evident in John Macionis's introductorytextbook, where he
defines gender as
society's division of humanity,based on sex, into two distinctivecategories.Gender
guides how females and males thinkaboutthemselves,how they interactwith others,
and whatpositionsthey occupy in society as a whole (1993:352;my emphasis).
Likewise, consider CraigCalhoun, Donald Light, and SuzanneKeller's text, which claims
that sociologists conceptualizegender as "nonbiological,culturallyand socially produced
distinctionsbetween men and women and masculinityand femininity"(1994:269). Again
we see the dependence of theories of gender on the existence of two distinct categories,
male and female. This so-called biological configurationis actually the foundation of
establisheddefinitions of gender. Accordingly, gender is not treatedas variable;rather,it
is made up of two distinct entities, unquestioned, ahistorical, static, and consequently
normative. These understandingsserve as the standardin mainstream sociology and
legitimize the organization of all other manifestations as deviant, alternative, or
Evident in most conceptualizationsof gender is an assumptionof heteronormativity.In
other words, to become gendered is to learn the properway to be a woman in relationto
a man, or feminine in relation to the masculine. For instance, consider Mary Maynard's
argumentthat "a significantfactor in understandingthe organisationof society is women's
socially constructed difference from men" (1990:281). Patricia Lengermannand Ruth
Wallace state that "exploringthe genderinstitutionmeans looking at the identityof females
in relation to males and vice versa . . . in the context of a two gender social reality"
(1985:3). As MargaretAndersenexplains, "Genderrefers to the complex social, political,
economic, and psychological relations between women and men in society" (1993:34).
These are just a few examples among many that identify gender as a cultural binary
organizingrelations betweenthe sexes. Ask studentshow they learnedto be heterosexual,
and they will consistently respondwith stories abouthow they learnedto be boys or girls,
women or men, throughthe various social institutionsin theirlives. Heterosexualityserves
as the unexamined organizing institution and ideology (the heterosexual imaginary) for
Most importantin these theories is the absence of any concept of heterosexualityas an
institutionalorganizing structureor social totality. The culturalproductionof behaviors
and expectationsas "socially learned"involves all social institutionsfrom family, church,
and education to the Departmentof Defense. Without institutionalizedheterosexualitythat is, the ideological and organizational regulation of relations between men and
women-would gender even exist? If we make sense of gender and sex as historically
and institutionallybound to heterosexuality,then we shift gender studies from localized
examinationsof individualbehaviorsand group practicesto critical analyses of heterosexuality as an organizing institution. By doing so, we denaturalizeheterosexuality as a
taken-for-grantedbiological entity; we begin the work of unmasking its operations and
meaning-makingprocesses and its links to large historical and material conditions. Although feminist sociologists have made importantcontributionsto the analysis of the
intersectionof gender and social institutions,they have not examinedthe relationof gender
to the institution of heterosexuality.By altering the startingpoint of feminist sociology
from gender to heterosexuality,or heterogender,as I have defined it, we focus on one of
the primaryroots of exploitation and oppressionratherthan on one of the symptoms.
The position I am taking in this essay is not new. It has a long and controversialhistory
in feminist thought. Early second-wave feminists such as the Furies Collective, Purple
September Staff, Redstockings (1975), Rita Mae Brown (1976), and Charlotte Bunch
(1976) challenged dominantnotions of heterosexualityas naturallyoccurring, and argued
thatinstead it is a highly organizedsocial institutionrife with multipleforms of domination
and ideological control. Adrienne Rich's (1980) article "On CompulsoryHeterosexuality
and Lesbian Existence" and Monique Wittig's (1992) "The StraightMind"confrontedthe
institutionof heterosexualityhead on, assertingthat it is neithernaturalnor inevitable but
instead is a contrived, constructed, and taken-for-grantedinstitutionor, as Wittig argues,
a political regime. Now classics in feminist theory, these works have left a legacy that
can be found in knowledges circulatingprimarilyin the humanities.
In relationto other disciplines, sociology is losing groundon these issues as the contest
over sexuality and gender escalates in other areas of the social sciences and in the
humanities.For example, debates within gay/lesbiantheory, culturalstudies, and feminist
theory in the humanitiesindicate that a majorrethinkingof gender and heterosexualityis
underway (Butler 1989; de Lauretis 1987; Fuss 1991; Hennessy 1993; Sedgwick 1990;
Seidman 1991, 1992, 1993; Warner1993; Wittig 1992). Queertheory, as it is now called,
has emerged as one of the prominent new areas of academic scholarship. A virtual
explosion of books, articles, and special issues has issued from majoracademicpublishers
and high-level journals. Yet these new knowledges have been producedprimarilywithin
the humanities. Queer theory has been dominatedby postmodernculturaltheorists such
as Butler (1989), de Lauretis(1987), and Sedgwick (1990), who posit heteronormativity
and gender as performativeaspects of postmodernculture. More recent materialistapproaches to rethinkinggender and sexuality include the works of Delphy (1980), Evans
(1993), Hennessy (forthcoming), George Smith (1988, 1990, 1991), and Wittig (1992),
to name a few.
I am arguingin this essay for a returnto feminist sociology's political high ground. By
"political"I mean all those social, materialpractices in which the distributionof power
is at stake. Attendingto these practicesrequiresan internalcritiqueof sociological gender
theory for its participationin the very conditions feminist seeks to pressure and for its
reproductionof the heterosexual imaginary.In the interests of materialistfeminism and
the lesbian/gay/bisexualrights movements, I am arguingfor an examinationof the ways
in which feminist sociology's theories of gender contributeto the productionand institutionalization of hegemonic heterosexuality. Finally, I am calling for something really
queer: a critique of institutionalizedheterosexualityas a formal area of inquiry within
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