Natalie Carpentier

Prof Engelson

Independent Study

22 February 2017

“Is Gender Necessary?”

“I considered myself a feminist: I didn’t see how you could be a thinking woman and not be a

feminist; but I had never taken a step beyond the ground gained for us by Emmeline Pankhurst

and Virginia Woolf” - Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, feminist author known for writing over many mediums and genres, is

mostly recognized for writing pieces about bringing all different aspects of humanity (and non-

humanity) together to create harmony between them and connect them to their surroundings

through their morality. A particularly interesting discovery was that one of Le Guin’s novels, The

Left Hand of Darkness, featured androgynous characters, who were able to choose a sex during

mating season, but otherwise remained mostly genderless. This, combined with the ideas

presented in her other novels and essays shows the way that Le Guin’s ideas about sexuality,

gender, and feminism played a role at the time these pieces were published.

“Is Gender Necessary?” was published in the second wave of feminism in 1976, which is

when sexuality and reproductive rights were being analyzed on a wider basis (Burkett). Through

this work, Le Guin explores her own thoughts and feelings out in the open, saying how she is not

a political activist, sociologist, psychologist or theoretician, so she was only able to make a

statement about gender in her fiction. This brought a new light into how people should approach

feminism: Everyone should participate in this sort of alternative to feminism by applying their

personal fields of experience to explain feminist ways instead of subscribing to the all-powerful
notion of “true feminism,” which has only one way of doing things. Le Guin suggests that people

start seeing every subject through a feminist lens by explaining it as “a heuristic device, a

thought-experiment . . . . The experiment is performed” (Le Guin 158-9).

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin took a feminist thought of gender, and applied it

to her form of expression: science fiction. In “Is Gender Necessary?,” she explains that science

fiction is all about asking questions and exploring the limits of the imagination, so that is what

she did with gender, sexuality, and reproductive roles. She said that instead of just thinking about

the “what-ifs” of gender, she sent a “young man from earth into an imaginary culture which is

totally free of sex roles because there is no, absolutely no, physiological sex distinction. [She]

eliminated gender, to find out what was left,” which she said turned out a bit “messy” but it was

a necessary thought contribution (Le Guin 160). Overall, however, she did not make this novel

just to make androgynous characters. She wanted to write about a society that had no war, and

then focused on the androgynous piece later. This fact alone makes a comment on the power

roles associated with gender stereotypes.

One important thing to note is that in the “Redux” version of “Is Gender Necessary?”

(dated 1988), Le Guin criticizes her original essay in the sidelines, pointing out where she was

being too tongue-in-cheek in order not to dive into something she couldn’t escape so easily in

short prose. She also puts her later ideas in conversation with her earlier thoughts, showing how

language and meaning changes when put into certain contexts. She is fully aware of this

phenomenon when she states: “I play the game where rules keep changing” (Le Guin 160). Some

of the critiques of her writings in The Left Hand of Darkness and the earlier version of “Is

Gender Necessary?” are that she was promoting the wrong kind of feminism – the idea of

making “ideal progress” in the way set by that of earlier feminist writers and theorizers. She
combats this by enforcing her ideas of the new feminist lens in every subject. She also noted that

because of the strict functionality of sex in The Left Hand of Darkness, she accidentally enforced

heterosexuality, where she otherwise could have allowed non-heterosexual practices and even

could have had them end in reproduction. She regrets this, along with the later self-criticized use

of “he” pronouns. Though she realizes using “he” pronouns makes male readers more open to the

androgyny, it does exclude women’s connection to the piece.

Le Guin’s ability be honest and revisit her views of her past flaws, putting her changing

language advancements in conversation against herself was incredibly brave. She was able to

admit where she was weak in the past and move forward to influence others to apply her new

feminist lens to their contexts to see what they come up with – even if it goes against her

thoughts. In the end, she thanks readers for participating in her experiment with language and

promotes balance in the world, no matter what it brings: “If we were socially ambisexual, if men

and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, equal legally and

economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility, and in self-esteem, then society would be a

very different thing. What our problems might be, God knows; I only know we would have

them” (Le Guin 172).
Works Cited

Burkett, Elinor. "Women's Movement." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica,

Inc., 08 June 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Le Guin, Ursula K. "Is Gender Necessary?." The Language of the Night (1976): 155-172.

Le Guin, Ursula K. "Ursula K. Le Guin: Biographical Sketch." Ursula K. Le Guin: Biographical

Sketch. Ursulakleguin.com, 19 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.