Path dependence

An interesting point made by Les Green at Semper Viridis:

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

And those things, and many others, are important; they make a difference; they shape how one experiences being a girl and then a woman. They’re not nothing.

More on path dependence, by Stephen E. Margolis and S. J. Liebowitz.

Path dependence is a term that has come into common use in both economics and law. In all instances that path dependence is asserted, the assertion amounts to some version of “history matters.” Path dependence can mean just that: Where we are today is a result of what has happened in the past.

Being a woman is path dependent because it’s a result of years of being a girl. Being a girl is path dependent because it’s a result of preceding years or months or days of being a girl. We are what our pasts make us.

That’s one reason, probably the main reason, I don’t think people can just become something radically different by uttering the words (except in cases where uttering the words does the work – “I am abandoning my religion” for example). That’s why I refused to answer that stupid “yes or no” question the way I was ordered to. That’s why I made the distinction between the ontological and the political meaning of the words, which some people found so very over-intellectual and shameful of me.

History does matter.

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