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* Book: Gender. By Ivan Illich. Pantheon, 1982




Extended book and background notes by Fabio Milana at


(of the manuscript)

Fabio Milana:

"It is known that Illich brought Gender to completion during a long stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg in West Berlin (October 1981 -- April 1982), planned expressly in view of this commitment. A first draft of the essay already existed, however, co-authored with Lee Hoinacki in the summer of 1981, as the author tells us in the foreword to the first edition. It was documented “in real time” by Valentina Borremans in her “Tecno-Politica” series with the title, Vernacular Gender (“as of July 1981”). It was just the start of another of those swarms of temporary or collateral publications that normally accompanied the appearance of one of Illich’s major titles and which makes his bibliography a kind of brain-teaser. Preserved in them, though, is a trace of the circumstances and the way in which he prepared his campaigns of intellectual agitation. Opening this first known draft, for example, it is immediately clear how the author aimed to complete and formally present his research at the seminar in Berkeley, only expected for the end of the following year, probably taking into account also the prestige of that location. In the meantime, adhering to the customs of “Tecno-Politica,” he authorized his text to be reproduced in any kind of journal (ample excerpts came out in CoEvolution Quarterly in March 1982, for example), or even in volume form up to a maximum of 250 copies, in view of some preliminary penetration of the theories of the essay. Thanks to a piece of news in the editorial note of Vom Recht auf Gemeinheit (1982; in Italian Lavoro ombra, 1985), we know that in November 1981 the text was already in the hands of Ruth Kriss-Rettenbeck, who used it in a seminar at the University of Munich and at the same time was translating it into German. In all likelihood it was this version that was discussed at the faculty of theology of the University of Marburg in the first months of 1982, to which the author refers in the foreword to the 1995 German republication. However, we do not know exactly what stage of development the work was at. The original draft is entirely used in the final version, but whereas in the first part (corresponding to the current chapters I and II) the concordances are both ample and literal, in the second one (current chapters III-V) integrations and changes of position gradually increase, while in the last one (chapters VI-VII) they become preponderant. We can say with relative certainty that the long chapter on religious history that embraces the theme of penitence and then all of The Iconography of Sex, as well as the theory of a transition period under the system of “broken gender,” both belong to a later stage of development of the essay. But it is also more interesting to observe the “high definition” of this first, though partial draft, which became part of the final text with few adjustments, mostly in the margins of the paragraphs, mainly to confer more brilliance to the endings of the sentences. Right from the start, the author has in mind a handy and engaging pamphlet, able to circulate autonomously from that apparatus of glosses that will only be added subsequently, as a second supporting text and counterpoint, this time aiming at a generally academic audience. That the long stay in Germany was chiefly destined toprovide an in-depth bibliographical analysis, as would be deposited in the very rich “titled footnotes,” is also borne witness to by the beautiful recollection of those months left by Gesine Bottomley, librarian at the Wissenschaftskolleg,"


Roots of the book in Illich's mother's: Die Frau vor der Zukunft

Fabio Milana:

"it is precisely such a position as “mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix,” according to God’s plan of redemption (and by now also according to Church awareness, after the developments of Mariology and after the introduction of the apostolate of the laity), that authorises women to take on the role of guides (“Führerinnen”) in the current crisis, to exercise their mission of natural and spiritual “bringing into the world” of humanity that, in the present hour, takes on the characteristics of an authentic Reintegration.

But this will only be possible for them provided that they reclaim awareness of their own essential diversity. Moreover, it is precisely “the Judeo-Christian tradition that tells us that man and woman are different, because God made them different, with different vocations and different missions, though with the same aim of loving God,” opposing that neutralizing process (“Neutralizierungsprozess”) that assimilates men and women more and more into a “uniforme Indifferenz,” especially in the West. And provided that women fully recover their practical authority and autonomy in the “domain” that traditional societies had always recognised as theirs and no man had ever dreamed of contending. Of course, it will not be easy for men, even those with the best intentions, to recognise now not only the absolute equal rights of women as women in their integral difference (“in ihrer ganzen Verschiedenartigkeit”) but even their superiority within the sphere of action that belongs to them (“ihre Uberlegenheit im eigensten Wirkungskreis”). Whereas other men, as “scientific experimenters,” intervene more and more heavily to devastate once-protected areas such as education, nutrition, “psychohygiene.” In the ecclesial field, however, “as long as a better intelligence of women’s needs hasn’t become common domain, the self-help of women among themselves will be one of the main tasks of the female apostolate of the laity, and through this the most autonomous and expert ones will help their sisters, so confused and unhappy today, to ‘understand themselves.’” It is not possible here, neither would it always be enlightening, to follow Maexie in her illustration of female diversity. It is not even possible to relate in detail her criticism of the totalitarianism creeping into the “free world,” conducted on the basis of a mainly Anglo-Saxon “critical thought” (Orwell, Huxley, Packard, Galbraith, Mumford, Riesman, Lippmann), but framed in the atmosphere of Soloviev’s Antichrist. It would be relevant for us on several points, for example, where she 82 introduces a contrast between Heim and Wohnstätte, home and residence, or denounces the pressure of the Volkskapitalismus on housewives, proclaiming the need for a Konsum-askese organised by them (here in the footsteps, though rather more delicate, of Dorothy Dohen). One cannot even relate in depth, her argument against scholastic philosophy and the hoped-for “return to the fathers” by the “Christian gnosis,” which would mean Roman Catholicism renewing relations with eastern spiritual trends, with mystic experience and with the rabbinic tradition. Neither can one linger on the ecclesial geography that the author outlines (with a group of “radical postmodernists” wedged between progressives and conservatives) on the eve of a Council already called but never named in a book that, perhaps, owes the broadness of its horizons and the boldness of its reformatory intentions to the climate of expectation aroused by that announcement. On the other hand, it is not to be believed that such a vast subject integrates itself effortlessly or without leaving large areas of shadow. Neither can it be believed that the perpetual assertiveness of the author, so similar to that of her son but without his brilliance, never sounds naive or fanciful. Besides, we should not overlook the fact that Maexie’s theories, just because they are theories, are inconsistent with a “traditional” female universe which in fact she had never really been part of, if for no other reason than her “class privilege,” as her abandonment of the marital home after only few years of marriage shows. This theme has never been touched on in a book that does not hesitate to deal with far more thorny topical questions, and always from a conservative position driven to mysticism. As far as we are directly concerned, it would be above all gratuitous to let readers believe that the theories in the book were simply Ivan’s theories, or derived directly from him, and that he had complete awareness of them, then or later on."



The negative reception of the book by feminists

Fabio Milana:


"It is not surprising that the development of gender studies, which thrived quickly (the overtaking of the competitor sex in the list of academic titles in the English language dates from 1987), managed without Illich’s contribution. In none of their variations and nuances would the concepts of gender and sex, even when contrasted, be represented as both corresponding to a social/historical formation—neither when thought of as cultural constructions would they have retained the character of mutual antitheticity. This does not necessarily destine our text to infertility in this field of thought and studies (the claim in the queer area recently put forward by Jennifer Levi is striking, for example)."


"It is known that after the last of eight sessions of the Berkeley seminar, in autumn 1982, the unease of the female audience, or at least a good part of it, found expression at the symposium called by seven women scholars, six of whom were lecturers at the same university (“Is he taking us for a ride?”). The author of Gender, invited and contested, had no more than fifteen minutes to respond to the criticism of the speakers; they considered that he had had twenty-four hours to spread his doctrines, and the count was still heavily in his favour. We don’t know how he got through in these circumstances because, as was his habit, he did not allow hisintervention to be recorded (it seems he said “To be taped is to be raped,” to the bewilderment of the onlookers). The opponents limited themselves to publishing only their own interventions in the March 1983 edition of “Feminist Issues.”

The fortunes and misfortunes of the book persistently attached themselves to this episode, feeding each other for a long time in the ambiguous light of a “scandal” both denounced and claimed. Illich himself procured about a thousand copies of the journal with the intention of distributing it to anyone he wished to make aware, in such a paradoxical way, of his own position, as he explained in the Conversation with Cayley (in a passage (p. 186) that cannot be read in any of the available translations). He held back at the last minute for a “gender” scruple: “No, a gentleman doesn’t do this.” Though with differing tones, those first criticisms were total and head-on, a prior obstruction of a book, or a signature, which they showed they considered seriously dangerous. Of course they expressed an immediate rebuff on behalf of a recent and winning movement of women, little prepared to be told from above or from the outside what their mindset should be. But it was also the reaction of an academic system that felt challenged (not simply in its Women’s Studies, but in the whole range of disciplines involved in them, each one with its own “scientific” framework, technical language, specialized literature, happily exempt from any suspicion of bias). And along with that, it was the comforting redress of the democratic, progressive, lay, modernizing etc, self-evidence. In this different balance sheet of the resources in the field, the “tables” were more than turned, and Illich could be victoriously brushed off as a champion of the male-chauvinist reaction in progress, a socio-biologist suspected of having Nazi sympathies, a charlatan in the guise of a scholar, a nostalgic of the good old days that actually never existed, and finally a priest. The reception of Gender does not finish here: it was a little more favourable where it was a question of specific prehensility of certain of its categories, for example in H. T. Wilson’s theoretical sociology; making a double exception is the friendly, timely welcome, in Italy, by Anna Del Bo Boffino, an essayist for the general public. But the tracks retraced more often by critics had been definitively laid. On the other hand it would not be fair, polemic excesses aside, to deny that many of the objections originate from one or another of the effective vulnerabilities of the text. Here it is worth lingering on what only after decades can be perceived better: the fact that, ultimately, Illich’s speech remains a speech on gender but not a “gendered” one ... not “inside” gender. Neither the insurmountable “complementarity” of the two paradigms, nor the alleged impossibility of expressing it other than by “metaphor,” prevent him from speaking of his “object” from a “central” and superordinate point of view. It is the viewpoint of the critique of political economy and ideologies connected to it, ultimately a “neutral” one—or rather, if only partial—conducted from a different “biased” perspective: the part of reason against the darkness of superstition, modern superstition, according to a radically “laical” and “Enlightenment” approach that later Illich himself would judge as having been unequal to the challenge. In this sense it is not a coincidence, and does not let itself be reduced to the (mis)fortunes of the book, that the theme then eclipses from the consideration of the author and, even more so, of his followers."