In Fall 1982, as the invited Regents Lecturer at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ivan Illich stirred up a storm of controversy and protest.
For eight weeks, it was standing room only in the hall where he gave a series lectures on the topic of what he called "gender." At that time, according to Illich, this term was rarely used in the study of relations between men and women. In his Conversations with David Cayley, page 181, Illich states:
It's amazing how quickly things change. When I used the term gender in 1980, and told my publisher, Pantheon, that I wanted to write a book with that title, they told me that the only thing anyone understands as gender is the article you put in front of a noun. In certain special sciences, it means gender as distinct from species. I do know, my editor said, that some anthropologists also identify gender and sex.
Then I went back to the library - in 1980 - and looked at feminist literature. It was all a question of sexism. Sex and gender were used identically. A few people had begun to speak about the social aspects of women's behavior as gender and their physiological differences as sex. One year after my book was published, in 1983, the two major indices for scientific literature in the United States introduced, for the first time, as a new word in the subject index gender. Today, we take its use for granted, but as a completely arbitrary way of speaking about the social reflections of sex, in a certain kind of literature.
At Berkeley, feminist professors and others in Illich's overflowing audiences reacted to his lectures with outrage. Why, they asked, had a man been invited to speak about issues involving the economic plight of women in the first place? And what business did this particular man, who'd long served as priest in the Roman Catholic Church, have in telling women that they'd lived better in the gendered past than they do now, in the economically-defined, market-driven, de-gendered present?
Illich's argument would soon reach a much wider audience in the book called Gender. The few reviews it received were mostly negative, including one appearing in the Sunday New York Times by Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley professor of sociology. (Perhaps the fairest and most insightful appreciation of this book can be found in David Cayley's splendid introduction to The Rivers North of the Future.)
In response to Illich, Hochschild and other women professors at Berkeley held a public discussion to rebut his thesis and, as they saw it, the perverse ways in which he had interpreted much of the wide-ranging evidence that he presented. ("Scholars of sex discrimination will be surprised to see their work cited to support the contention that sexual equality is out of the question," Prof. Hochschild wrote in the Times.)
A year later, these women's responses to Illich were published as eight pieces in a Berkeley-based journal called Feminist Issues (Vol. 3, No. 1), several or possibly all of which are available here and there for downloading off the Web. Illich responds to these critiques in Conversations, dismissing them as essentially "a witch-hunting trial" and "gossip," but we won't go into that just now.
What's the irony, you're asking? Last night, we noticed that the journal that attacked Illich's gender thesis so famously and so vociferously now calls itself Gender Issues.