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Vol 39  No 8
Jan. 11, 2007


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Feminist philosopher to challenge assumptions about personhood, gender and sex
by Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Christine Overall

In three different January lectures, Dr. Christine Overall, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University and the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, will invite audiences to step beyond common assumptions and consider other – sometimes radical – perspectives.

Her first talk on Thursday, Jan. 18, will look at “Conjoined Twins, Embodied Personhood and Surgical Separation.” Part of the Philosophy Colloquium, the discussion will centre on questions of when and whether separation should be undertaken.

“What’s both fair and compassionate?” Dr. Overall wonders, noting society assumes separation is the best possible course of action. She explained that because almost everyone experiences “embodied personhood” as one person in one body, people have trouble imagining conjoined twins could ever be happy.

“What’s missing from the debate is how conjoined twins themselves feel about their lives.” Her talk will explore historical cases, and what adult conjoined twins have said.

The topic is particularly timely because of the publicity surrounding twins Tatiana and Krista Simms, born joined at the head in British Columbia a few months ago, she noted. While it’s an extremely rare event, Dr. Overall said the issue raises larger questions about how we perceive and treat those with different kinds of bodies.

She will again challenge listeners to examine their assumptions when she offers “Sexism and the Gendering of the University” on Friday, Jan. 19, sponsored by the Women’s Studies Speaker’s Series. “Sexism persists in universities as it does in most aspects of society,” Dr. Overall said, noting that sexism feeds on the notion of gender, which has been dealt with in different ways over the years.

Old-fashioned sexism, she said, presumed that masculinity and femininity were diametrically opposed, and that masculinity was superior. Then a “cultural feminist” approach argued that femininity was just as good – perhaps better in some ways. A third approach was to preserve the notion of gender but to encourage androgyny. Dr. Overall, however, will argue for “junking gender” altogether.

“I’m proposing the end of any form of compulsory gender.” She asserted that universities should be the leaders in undermining gender as a construct. “We need to be examining, in our teaching and in our research, the real value of gender. I think we haven’t been radical enough.”

Dr. Overall became sensitive to notions of gender as an administrator, when she worked with transsexual and transgendered individuals who didn’t fit into the prescribed categories. “These individuals hold out the idea that there are not just two genders but many kinds of gender.”

She added: “I’m not arguing that we immediately stop paying attention to gender, but rather that we start thinking about what our reason is for believing it’s inevitable.” She said one analogy is to race, which was previously presumed to be a crucial human trait necessary for categorizing and understanding people.

Finally, Dr. Overall will make a “Plea for ‘Sex’” at a Women’s Studies workshop on Friday afternoon. Here, she will make the argument that we should still be talking about sex – not only about gender.

“The word ‘gender’ is getting used more and more, instead of sex.” She recounted hearing biologists use gender even when referring to mice. Sex, she noted, is about genitalia; gender has to do with behaviour and presentation.

“They’re not interchangeable. But by using them that way, we risk losing sight of the ways in which gender oppression is different than oppression based on sex, on genitalia.”

Dr. Overall emphasizes that her goal in raising issues around personhood, gender and sex is not necessarily to convince or convert, but rather to lay out some arguments and push thinking and discussion forward.

Details of Dr. Overall’s presentations are listed in the Events Calendar.

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