Shira Tarrant’s book When Sex Became Gender offers an intriguing new perspective on the persistent dialogue about how feminists might link feminist theory and practice. When Sex Became Gender proposes that the so-called eras of feminism have overlooked significant contributions to the feminist movement from writers who do not fit neatly into definitions of first-or second-wave feminists. Specifically, Tarrant examines the era between the feminists who agitated for the right to vote (first wave) and those who agitated for civil and equal rights in the 1960s (second wave). When feminists typically think about progress for feminism, it is often the concrete actions or results that signify the “true” accomplishments of the movement; thus it is easier to mark movements as accomplishments along a timeline. Clearly, Tarrant can see the value of this as well, but in this book she also seeks to focus attention on those thinkers who wrote not in the tumultuous times of radical change but in the in-between times where the movement experienced obstacles— even regression. The purpose of the book is “to describe and to ascertain the connections that exist between feminist eras” and to suggest that what some think of as a lull in the feminist movement was actually a productive era of theoretical production that provided the bases for the ideas of the second wave (3).
Tarrant analyzes five writers of the period, linking them by their similar theories on the “social construction of womanhood, the ideologically driven justifications for enforcing women’s status as the ‘second sex,’ and an emphasis on the malleability of personality” (3). The writers are culled from various disciplines: Margaret Mead (anthropology), Mirra Komarovsky and Viola Klein (sociology), Simone de Beauvoir (philosophy), and Ruth Herschberger (independent research), in order to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of [End Page 84] feminism in this period, which also successfully links this book to the interdisciplinarity of contemporary feminisms. Tarrant seeks to “provoke new thinking about the broader implications of important feminist connections” between then and now (3). In investigating the national contexts of these writers in Britain, France, and the United States, she notes the remarkable similarities of the political milieus—as responses to terrorism threats have blossomed into a restrictive atmosphere reminiscent of the anti-communist 1950s—and the social milieus as the false binaries of motherhood and work are once again simultaneously regaled and critiqued (3). One of Tarrant’s major premises is that postwar “protofeminists” represent the first theoretical forays into social constructionism.
Although the former two observations are valid, the book does not adequately investigate these connections throughout the chapters; Tarrant is, however, successful in charting social construction as the foundation for contemporary theories about constructions of identity. Conceding that the writing of this era was concerned primarily with white, middle-class women, she insists that the ideas would influence the thinking that came later and contribute to the feminist legacy as a continuum. Part of the skill of this book resides in these moments of self-critique, where Tarrant attends to the lack of attention to class, race, and sexual identity in these writers’ works precisely to reiterate that progress is a process by which we learn. Feminist thinkers who may seem too conservative or too narrowly entrenched in their own social and racial strata, nevertheless contribute important ideas—ideas revolutionary for their time—that eventually pave the way for the more radical ideas to come.
The focused strength of this book is the realization of Tarrant’s latter goals: recognizing that the theory of social construction has a historical precedent, and that issues of race and sexual identity, though not at the forefront, were issues that these writers had begun thinking through. This is the work that Tarrant brilliantly executes throughout the book. Much as her authors wrote boldly yet conservatively, Tarrant writes with a measured tone that aims to include and persuade. She explodes persistent myths quietly and consistently, noting that when women left the factories after the war, they didn’t go home to the suburbs, they just worked different jobs (64...