Meet Raewyn Connell

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Raewyn Connell (1944), born Robert William Connell, is the most influential Australian sociologist. Her research fields go from large-scale class dynamics, poverty and education, sociology of knowledge, sexuality and AIDS prevention to social change and gender relations. Her book “Masculinities” (1995) was one of the founders of this research field. She is currently university professor at the University of Sydney.

In the ILGA Trans Secretariat’s web page it’s written that it’s a paradox that the most important intellectual of masculinity is now a woman. First of all do you feel you are a woman?

No, I don’t feel I’m a woman.  I know it.  I don’t think that’s very different from the kind of knowledge other women have (and men too, about being men).  For transsexual women, of course, the knowledge has definite complexities; yet there are gender complexities at some level in almost everyone’s life.

Do you feel you are a man?

For large parts of my life I tried to live as a man, but always with the underlying contradiction. That is the situation many transsexual women find themselves in. There is no simple resolution of that contradiction, and no outcome without serious costs – including costs to other people in our lives.  It’s not a glamorous situation and should not be romanticised.

Do you think it is necessary to belong either to one gender or the other?

No, it is not necessary for everyone to be subjectively either a man or a woman.  There are some people who try consistently to live without gender commitments.  For instance, they live in de-gendered households, have emotional or sexual relations not determined by gender, present themselves with a mixture of gender symbolism, and demand that the state not classify them in gender terms.  This is a brave project and these people have my admiration.  But their project is incredibly difficult, because gender is a massive social reality, embedded in institutions as well as personal life.   For the great majority of people, having a definite place in the gender order is a routine condition of life, a ground of everyday action.

What do you think about the Trans Secretariat’s statement?

I don’t think there is any paradox here. In my writing about masculinity I put forward concepts and evidence, based on research, and these ideas have circulated because other people, both women and men, have found them accurate or useful.  That does not depend on who I am but on the force of the argument and the relevance of the evidence.  If one is interested in the biographical roots of ideas, then doubtless the fact of being a transsexual woman is one reason I became interested in gender problems all those years ago – but only one of the reasons!

However the Trans Secretariat (lovely word!) is right in saying there are political issues here.  For instance, some right-wing men in the USA have used my transition as a way of discrediting research about men and masculinity.  That is strictly illogical, but logic is not to be expected from the defenders of an irrational order.

Do you think you were born transsexual, you became one or both things?

I cannot resist the quotation: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.  I think that what Simone de Beauvoir said is equally true for transsexual women. This does not mean that transsexuality is a lifestyle or a “choice”, any more than gender is a “choice” for other women.  Gender is a hard reality for all of us.  To say that something is a social reality is not to say that it is light or easy to modify!  I should add that many transsexual women hold a different view, and believe that transsexuality is genetically determined; there is some biomedical literature that makes the same assumption.

Why have you decided to focus on masculinities as a gender issue?

I began to focus on masculinities because I was trying to understand the working of the gender order as a whole.  That is the project of my book Gender and Power, published in 1987.  If we want to understand a patriarchal gender order, then as well as understanding the lives of the groups oppressed by it, we need to understand the groups privileged by it.  We need to understand how gender works for them, and the way they “do gender” all the way from education and friendship through to gender-based violence and war.  This was the research strategy that used to be called “studying up”, in contrast to “studying down”, i.e. researching the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the exploited.  I had already some experience of “studying up”, for instance my book Ruling Class, Ruling Culture, published in 1977.  Between those years, I was involved in a fascinating research project on social relations in high schools.  It was in that project that I began to think about the relationships between different forms of masculinity, and so developed the idea of hegemonic masculinity in relation to subordinated and marginalized masculinities.

In which way does neoliberal globalization play an important role in contemporary construction of masculinities as you suggest in you book “Masculinities”?

Neoliberal globalization may affect the construction of masculinities in several ways.  First is the creation of new arenas for gender relations, such as transnational corporations.  Second is the economic re-structuring that has accompanied neoliberal power everywhere.  A main effect is to create more insecurity in the workforce, to break down workers’ rights and the unions that defend them. This has made it much more difficult for working-class men to sustain a masculinity centred on being a breadwinner, a fact now being observed by researchers in Latin America especially.  Third is the circulation of gender ideologies through transnational media that are controlled by profit-driven men and are usually quite hostile to feminism; this is one of the factors in the “backlash” against gender equality.

But there are also contradictions here.  Neoliberalism promotes an individualism that has been used by many middle-class women to break down masculine monopolies in professions and lower or middle management.  And the smarter men in management have now come to terms with this, and present themselves as supporters of gender-equal, inclusive policies.  I read an article in the business section of my local newspaper today, that claimed male managers are scared of women, and advocated treating everyone “as an individual”…

You say that in order to overcome gender discrimination “part of the task is to establish among men the hegemony of a non-violent masculinity, which requires a widespread understanding that strength doesn’t mean force”. Where could this understanding proceed from?

I think a better understanding can come from many sources.  There are non-violent traditions among men in many cultures: Quakers in England and the USA, the Gandhians in India, Buddhist traditions in Vietnam, etc.  There is a broad non-violent tradition of women’s politics in many parts of the world.  One of the truly hopeful signs is the tendency which one sees in many places for men to become more involved with small children, as fathers.  In Mexico this has been called paternidad afectiva, emotionally engaged fatherhood.  Being deeply involved in nurturing a new person is (I think) likely to make people – men or women – less likely to want to kill and maim others.

Do you believe in general that in order to overcome gender discrimination toward women, homosexuals and transgender, men and women as a group need to undergo different processes that might at one point get together or we can do it together starting from now?

I have long argued that major reform in the gender order must involve coalitions of social forces. I still think that is correct.  Such coalitions have already existed.  Examples are the anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation of the 1970s in Australia, Sweden and other countries, which involved coalitions between feminist women and supportive men, in state bureaucracies and labour parties.  The “international feminism” seen today in United Nations agencies also works through coalitions with men in governments and NGOs around the world.

Coalition politics is never simple and often doesn’t achieve what we initially hope for.  But we have to think this way, because in practical terms no other politics will produce large-scale change.

What are the goals that you still would want to achieve both at a personal and professional level?

I have research projects about “southern theory“, about intellectuals, about the social dimension of neoliberalism, as well as about masculinities.  I have graduate students I hope to guide and maybe even inspire.  I have some political engagements and I want to be a useful member of my union, my solidarity group, my professional associations. I would like to broaden my international engagement and political involvement, within the limits of energy that I now have to acknowledge.  Personally?  Well, I have a family and friends, and I want to see them flourish.  The gender transition still has plenty of work to be done.  I want to grow a garden full of grevilleas and attract more colourful parrots.  And I would like to write one really good poem, before I put down the pen (or switch off the word processor) for the last time.

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