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Trans America: The Historical Roots of Contemporary Gender Ideology 

April 22, 2024


The debate over gender identity is certainly one of the fiercest, and strangest, battle fronts in the current culture wars. Advocates of gender fluidity or “transgenderism” assert that they are simply advancing the next frontier in the sexual revolution that triumphed in the 1960s. Critics charge that trans activists are simply “elevating subjective experience to a position of infallible authority,” yet often appeal to universal norms that look suspiciously like the gender relations of the 1950s. A sanity that existed within living memory may appear to be recoverable, but living memory is a historically short-sighted norm and only adds to the confusion of an already quite confusing debate. America was born in a Declaration of Independence. Since that time, American culture has experienced an ongoing series of declarations of independence from received understandings of the founding ideals of freedom and equality. Thomas Jefferson once quipped, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Jefferson would get his wish. 

The remarkable continuity of the American constitutional order has obscured this persistent pattern of rebellion. The United States still governs itself according to a constitution ratified in 1788. France, the other great revolutionary nation of the eighteenth century, is now on its fifth republic since 1789. It is common for Americans in our time to contrast the two revolutions, praising the wise conservatism of the American Founders and condemning the self-destructive radicalism of the French Revolution; however, prior to 1789, Americans had no problem proclaiming the radicalism of their political experiment. In 1782, the year following the decisive victory at Yorktown, the new nation adopted as its motto “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” a “new order of the ages.” That same year, James Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur published his Letters from an American Farmer, in which he asked, and answered, the question: 

What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Best known as an early vision of America as an ethnic melting pot, this quote speaks more broadly to the vision of America as a place where people throw off traditions and begin life anew, free from the dead hand of the past. Americans could not and would not throw off all the past at once, but the freedom to pick and choose which aspects of the past one retains or discards came to be understood as central to American freedom.

Today’s advocates of radical cultural and sexual autonomy have little to add to Emerson’s early Victorian musings.

This strain of American culture came to its first full flowering in the 1830s. Visiting America at this time, the great French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville observed and identified a new, uniquely American, social phenomenon: individualism. The term has since taken on a variety of meanings, so it is important to clarify Tocqueville’s original definition. Careful to distinguish this new phenomenon from mere egotism or selfishness, Tocqueville writes:

Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.

Contemporary Americans are prone to see in family and friends the essence of community. Tocqueville saw the retreat into this private sphere as a symptom of the loss of a common public life and the notion of a common good. 

Among intellectuals, it was a fairly short step from the privatization of the common life to the privatization of ultimate truth. In his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson would provide what remains perhaps the clearest articulation of an American declaration of independence from all received authority. A few quotes should suffice:

To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. . . . Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.

Today’s advocates of radical cultural and sexual autonomy have little to add to Emerson’s early Victorian musings. That Emerson’s age was in most other respects so different from ours reflects the novelty and marginality of his ideas in his time and the persistence of social structures rooted in received, more traditional moral norms. Like Ulysses tied to the mast, Emerson could revel in his own Siren song while lesser oarsmen, ears stuffed with traditions, steered the ship of society away from the rocks. 

Still, forces other than Emerson were working to erode those traditions. Religion, which Tocqueville in particular saw as a source of stability, proved to be a symptom of, rather than antidote to, individualism. Constitutional disestablishment had weakened the official public standing of Christian churches; the evangelical revivalism of the early nineteenth century undermined what remained of that public authority. As the historian Nathan O. Hatch has argued, these revivals brought about a “democratization of American Christianity” that effectively relocated religious authority from the ministerial pulpit to the personal experience of individual believers. Most of these believers would have denounced Emerson as a heretic, but they shared with him the belief that the Truth lies within. The “Old Time Religion” of nineteenth-century Christianity may appear traditional compared to contemporary Christianity, but it marked a radical departure from the forms of Christianity that had preceded it. 

The successful severing of sex from reproduction opened up the floodgates for a variety of new understandings of sex . . .

As Americans found it increasingly difficult to agree on Christianity, some looked to the family as a moral ideal capable of commanding universal assent. Here, too, change was afoot, a radical redefinition of the family. Up until the nineteenth century, “the family” meant the home economy, in most cases the farm family. This home economy assigned each member specific tasks necessary for the survival of all; most of these tasks were gender specific, with a mother and daughter performing certain tasks and a father and son others. Capitalism destroyed this traditional family by drawing work out of the home and into factories, transforming the communal work of family life into individual wage labor. The bourgeois industrialists who created the factory system at first expected every man, woman, and child of the working class to submit to a life of wage labor; at the same time, the middle classes created a new model of family for themselves. In the new model, the home surrendered all its productive functions to the market: women remained in the home but now focused their energies on child-rearing and providing affective companionship to their husband; men earned money in a ruthless market economy but returned to the home seeking emotional comfort, a “haven in a heartless world.” For conservative defenders of the family in America today, this new model still stands as a common reference point for definitions of the “traditional” family.

The fixed gender roles of the nineteenth century would last no more than any other fixed roles in American life. True, they had a pretty good run. Much of the first half of the twentieth century saw an effort to extend the middle-class family model to the working class; by the 1950s, this effort had largely succeeded. But as the historian Christopher Lasch argued in his classic work Haven in a Heartless World, the market economy would soon invade the family itself. If at first this simply transformed the mother into “consumer in chief” within the home, exposure to the world of alternatives presented by a market culture would soon draw women out of the home, seeking new possibilities through work. Within the old household economy, men and women had different tasks but shared a common life defined by traditional limits and expectations. The modern economy drew the average man out of the home and thrust him into a world where he was supposed to be free to forge his own destiny while women remained at home with their one option. For men who had never read Emerson, the creative destruction of the market strife provided bracing opportunities for self-assertion and self-creation. In a world that divided men and women into two radically separate spheres, women who were previously subordinate to men were now something less than fully human, or at the very least, less than fully mature and adult. 

Betty Friedan’s 1963 work The Feminine Mystique launched a new wave of feminism by demanding full participation in adult American life. Friedan correctly understood this life as defined by the career opportunities open to men. Though she affirmed family life and at first called simply for a greater work/family balance for women, the male professional model she claimed for women had no room for family life, which within that model was the responsibility of the stay-at-home mom. Even as Friedan struggled to make sense of these contradictions, a younger generation of feminists arose to demand not simply equal employment opportunities but reproductive freedom through contraception and abortion. Though initially viewed as “radical,” these demands quickly became mainstream, for they did indeed follow from the aspiration to a male professional model of work, which had no place for children. The successful severing of sex from reproduction opened up the floodgates for a variety of new understandings of sex rooted in pleasure, identity, or anything other than reproduction, now rendered to just one option among many possible understandings of the meaning and purpose of sex. 

Sadly, the sexual revolution and its current expression in transgenderism are, according to the preceding historical narrative, as American as apple pie. We are all Emersonians now. Given our general culture, even the affirmation of tradition or faith appears as simply an individual choice. How do we speak to such a culture? Appeals to reason and nature are admirable but of little avail when those terms command no more universal assent than an appeal to God. Alasdair MacIntyre was perhaps only half right when he framed our current options as a choice: “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” In an age of unreason, the real choice is: “Nietzsche or Jesus?”