Malise Rosbech


Harriet Bradley Gender 2nd ed. Polity Press: Cambridge/Malden, 2013.ISBN 9780745661162

Harriet Bradley’s Gender, a part of the very popular Polity Press Key Concepts series, presents a general account of the usages of the concept of gender. The second edition includes a new preface and some revisions and updates, but the general arguments and composition remains the same. Gender is primarily focused on sociological debates and literature. functions as as a broad introduction to the history and current usages of the, as she describes it, ‘busy term’ gender. The book consists of 6 main chapters dealing with the understanding and development of the concept of gender highlighting key issues with the theoretical positions in question. The first chapter is concerned with the attempts to conceptualise gender at a more abstract level whereas the two next chapters consider the theoretical approaches and frameworks wherein the concept has been further developed noticeably through modernism and postmodernism. The last three chapters, 4, 5 and 6 attempts to place a study of gender relations in a more Marxist framework namely production, reproduction and consumption. Every chapter consist of a ‘subchapter’ outlining the issue at hand through a case study situating the theory into a practical framework. Gender is a very accessible read and as a very general introduction to the concept of gender it works well. Unfortunately, for those very same reasons, it often lacks in theoretical depth to the subject and includes hasty conclusions or sweeping statements.

It is at times difficult to place Gender within the feminist framework, and there are places in the book where Bradley seems confused about her own position. As it is an introduction to the concept of gender, the different positions within feminist theory and politics are only briefly explained and critiqued in an attempt to filter the ‘worst parts’ of the general position away from the ‘reusable better parts’.  Bradley explains and analyses the general modernist second-wave feminist position including radical feminism, the third-wave postmodern, the socialist and Marxist feminism position of the 80’s and the first-wave liberal feminism and later neo-liberal feminism of today. Bradley herself identifies with intersectional feminism, claiming that race, class and sexuality intersect; that you cannot talk about one form of oppression without taking other forms of oppression into consideration, and she does deal with the different forms of oppression in relation to the concept of gender to a great extent. She positions herself somewhere in between the modernist and the postmodernist feminist discourse, arguing for a material theory of gender within a diverse postmodernist framework.  However, Bradley at times falls back into a more radical or liberal feminist position, seemingly without realising. This is in particular towards the final chapter when she praises newer feminist organisations and events such as Reclaim the Night and Slutwalks, for a more inclusive social movement, when in fact these have been criticised widely for being racist and exclusive of other marginalised groups.

Another unattuned conclusion is put forward in the section on gendering. Discussing the arrangement of gender, Bradley includes a discussion of masculinity studies and the Men’s Studies movement, dedicating a whole subchapter explaining the different forms of masculine identities of the neoliberal age. This is perhaps a vital input when we discuss the way in which both ‘men’ and ‘women’ are gendered through micro, meso and macro levels of social interaction; that men are just as entrenched in the process of gendering as women are, however, the questions that are raised at one point are at best reactionary and at its worst the rhetoric of victim-blaming: ‘women’s demands for freedom and equality have left men confused about their role. The breadwinner/dependent housewife model of the family is in decline. How can a man prove his masculinity (and superiority) in such circumstances?’ (p. 57) Masculinity is mainly in crisis, Bradley argues, because of the feminization of labour (p.63). Although by this term, Bradley might refer to the way in which the labour market has become generally more communication and service-based, it also refers to the flexible, part-time, low-paid and precarious labour echoing the history of women’s domestic work. Although there certainly are connections, there is a distinction to be made between women’s demand for freedom and the feminization of labour in neo-liberal capitalist society. Without such a distinction there is a danger of  blaming women for the general decline of the labour market

Although Gender sets out to critique and further theorise the conceptualisation of gender, we are not presented with any new arguments or theoretical engagement. Bradley puts forward her own understanding of such term: ‘gender refers to the varied and complex arrangements between men and women, encompassing the organization of reproduction, the sexual divisions of labour and cultural definitions of femininity and masculinity’. (p. 16) It is both a set of social arrangements determining the way different groups of people live, and a way of thinking which divides people into social categories. Bradley criticises the (in-)famous sex/gender distinction by way of Judith Butler’s assertion that sex is already gender, and in turn further criticises Butler’s theory for being devoid of any real material analysis of power structures such as capitalist development and geopolitics and therefore remaining a westernised theory. Although she embraces the notion of ‘doing gender’ as an activity, Bradley finds Butler’s ‘collapsing the social back into the biological’ a dangerous strategy, and therefore settles for retaining a difference between sex and gender, although sex being something different to sexuality and biological sex. Disappointingly, Bradley never forms a sufficient theory on the type of sex/gender distinction she puts forward, and the critique of Butler’s lack of materialist engagement is not new.

In fact, Bradley herself is prone to the selfsame critique she gives of Butler. Although Bradley places the question of gender in the last three chapters in a more Marxist framework, Gender lacks any real material analysis of the concept of gender – we are never further introduced to the questions of the relation between gender and gendering and geopolitics or the socio-economic structures in capitalist society. However, Bradley does provide a good introductory analysis of both modernist feminist and postmodernist feminism. Critiquing the binary fixity of gender politics of the modernist era, Bradley analyses how gender in a postmodern understanding  is understood to cross-cut and intersect with other sources of identity. This is specifically done through the theory of black feminists of the 1980s  attacking white feminists for ethnocentrism, racism and colonialism, but also through the  anti-essentialism of sex and gender prominent in queer studies. Bradley is careful, however, not to fall into a theory of individualism and identity politics, stressing that a balance is needed between the focus on specificities and a consideration of regular patterns and common tendencies.

Although Gender lacks in theoretical analysis, it explains the general issues often found in both modernist and postmodernist thinking in relation to the concept of gender well. Whether the critique I have put forward in this review is due to the introductory level of this book, is difficult to say. Gender remains a useful book to read if you want a very general sociological understanding of the development of the notion of gender in feminist thought in the last 60 years, but as most things, it needs to be viewed with a critical eye.


Malise is a Danish feminist based in London. She graduated from an MA course in philosophy and contemporary critical theory at Kingston University in 2012, specialising in sex and gender and materialist feminism. She is currently a freelance writer on feminist issues for various media.