Why does gender inequality seem natural, inevitable, and better than racism?

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Capitalism, of which neoliberalism is one development, is just one of the many forms of class society that have appeared over the last 6,000 years. There has been enormous cultural variety among all these different class societies, but in two things they are alike. They practise economic inequality, and they sustain systematic and enduring patterns of inequality between men and women. This is an extraordinary association between economic and gender inequality. So the big question for any theory of gender is – why? We think there is a straightforward answer, and it is an answer that it is fundamental to our understanding of masculinities under neoliberalism.

In every unequal society, the rich and powerful want things to stay unequal. Elites use violence to make this happen. But elites also need the rest of us to believe that inequality is natural and inevitable, and the most effective way to do this is to encourage the idea that men and women are unequal.

Elites enforce gendered inequality at every turn. This means we grow up thinking men and women are fundamentally different, and sexism, and the threat of sexual violence, are a constant feature of our lives.

Elites use racism and many other ideologies to divide us and make inequality seem natural. But gender naturalizes inequality better than racism. It is so effective because it is always double-sided: one side is love, the other is imbued with sexism. Love and kindness are aspects of all our closest human relationships – with our parents, our children, our friends and our lovers, straight or gay. But at the same time, our close relationships are riven with gender differences and inequality. So love locks us in, and sexism hurts and angers us. We are simultaneously trapped and divided.

This understanding of the naturalizing power of gender ideologies is our starting point. Three further ideas follow and are basic to our approach to masculinities under neoliberalism. First, violence is central to all class societies, because violence is an essential part of what keeps inequality in place. And because violence is central to class society, and gender is central to our being, all violence is gendered and sexualized. This means we need to pay attention to patterns of violence and how they are gendered, and how this relation has changed under neoliberalism.

Second, different forms of gendered inequality are used to justify different forms of class inequality. The ruling class project in any era is to manage the economy to keep themselves in power. When something important changes in an economy, such as new technologies appearing, or new people grabbing control of raw materials or taking over established businesses or banks, it is likely to challenge elite power. When this happens, the ruling class move to protect themselves as swiftly and effectively as they can, changing the economy and society in the process. They also try to reshape our lives and intimate experience of gender, so that a new form of gendered inequality fits us for a new kind of economic inequality.

The process of reshaping gender is, however, full of contradiction, complexity and resistance. Our third point is that ordinary people do not like inequality. So the story of gendered inequality is also a story of resistance. Sometimes the resistance explodes in power and joy. Sometimes we mutter, complain, endure, or look away with tears in our eyes. But always inequality is contested, fought over and negotiated. And so we must pay systematic attention to resistance.