Kath Woodward – No woman is an island

Author: Carolina Capelo Garcia 

In honor of the International Women’s Day 2022, we speak to Emeritus Professor Kath Woodward from the Open University, author of, Boxing, Masculinity and Identity: The “I” of the Tiger (2007); Sex Power and the Games (2012); Birth and Death; Politics, Experience, Ethics (2019) and Social Sciences: The Big Issues (4th edition 2022). Kath is an expert in feminist theory, sports, and gender studies, and Specialty Chief Editor for the Gender, Sex, and Sexualities section of Frontiers in Sociology. Today, we bring some complex questions to light, listening carefully to the changing dynamics of gender worldwide. 

Photo credit: Kath Woodward

Tell us a little of Kath Woodward – an exceptional sociologist, a strong feminist, a sports expert? What is your background?

“Well, I was born in Wales, I’m Welsh and proud of it. I come from a family who really valued education. My mother went to university to study science with her sister, and I think they were the only two women in the whole of the zoology department. And I think my writing on boxing comes from being very tiny and creeping into my parents’ bed – my father was a sports enthusiast – and listening to the fights in Madison Square Garden. One of the other things, why I think I liked sport, was that “I didn’t throw like a girl”. I was actually quite sporty. 

“When I went to Bristol for university after having had my education at a girl’s school, I realised that all the professors were men, all the lecturers were men, and most of the students were men. I began to ask certain questions. This was a time of heavy politics – the war in Vietnam, fighting oppression around the world – but realising that maybe some of it was at home, and especially for women.

“So that is where I come from. But I also come from interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and the idea that there is a problem, and that you need to make use of all resources that are available in order to understand it and make sense of it. Gender studies and women studies has always been interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and I think philosophy has too really, because it poses questions, and that’s always been very important to me.”

In your opinion, what is the role of sociology of gender and feminist theory in deconstructing gender norms? 

“Gender norms are changing and reforming, of course. But it isn’t a linear trajectory forward. I think it is crucial. I’d like to make a distinction between gender as an empirical category. We need to count the numbers and we need constructive evidence of where different genders occupy different positions. In order to understand inequality, we definitely need that kind of constructive evidence. 

“But gender is also an explanatory category, and that I feel is very important to note that. Gender is not just about the people that have particular characteristics or identify as a gender. It is also something which helps us understand social relations and the interplay between bodies, social, cultural categories, personal views, feelings, emotions, and social worlds – all of this constitutes gender. And in ways in which can be instructive in understanding other social relations, especially those of inequality. So, I think it is very important.

“One of the other things, coming to light especially recently, is the interrelationship between sex and gender, and we now are throwing out some of the long-held views of what constitutes sex and what constitutes gender – how far they can be separated at all. These are all interrelationships that come out of our understanding of gender. It works in relation to other axes of power and axes of discrimination. Intersectionality has demonstrated very explicitly and clearly the ways in which it isn’t a matter of adding on another source of oppression. It’s about the way which they intersect together, and produce new source of social relationships, like race and sex, gender, class, ethnicity, disability, and all these different locations that intersect together, so gender isn’t just a category on its own.”

From all your years of research and expertise on the inequalities of gender, sex, and experience, what major milestones have you lived as a scholar on breaking ground for conversations worldwide? How did it affect you?

“In terms of global events, I think there are some in relation to politics. One of the things that I think has really impacted is antiracism and the persistence of racism, which is also highlighted in the present, very much in the present, in relation to Black Lives Matter. And also, right-wing politics has impacted. It was in terms of trying to understand why it is that people espouse extreme right-wing politics, and they are doing it recently and at this very moment. Women are often the first to lose what rights they have gained in these kinds of situations. At the time, I was working on cultural studies, and it was really opened up ways of thinking of how hearts and minds were won, and it wasn’t necessarily about this being right and that being wrong, it was that people make an optional investment in views that actually counter their own interests, yet they do it. This makes the personal political explicit, and it also brings out the private terrain of women’s domestic lives, in particular, and the way in which how we understand social relations. 

“These are kind of events that question the assumptions. I think that is actually what women and gender studies is always about – questioning what you take for granted. And that’s when you get the big moments. When you think, “Wait a minute, I’ve always thought this, everybody thinks it, but is it right?” And then you question, “Is it the only way of being?” That’s when things change.”

As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, what words would you leave as your academic legacy for young feminists wishing to make a difference?

“There are two things. One is keep asking questions. Ask questions when people make claims: where are they coming from? what positions them in relation to the assertions they make? As a good scientist one would look at the evidence and the quality of their argument, and at what personal investment, or what collective investment, they might have. If your research is good, you will find new questions to ask. And maybe, like Karl Popper says, “that may be all you get”. But once you start asking the right questions, you might get the right kind of evidence, and I think you need to get into the field and situate their work in a social context. No woman in an island. 

“The other thing, apart from asking questions, is to listen. And unfortunately, people are not listening. And in terms of gender, at the moment some of the trans politics and critical gender theorists don’t seem to be listening to each other at all. I wish it was more amicable. We would be better off if people could listen to the opposing idea, and it’s not always opposing, actually, people aren’t always opposing. So, listening is the other thing. 

“I suppose a third thing is have confidence in yourself. You can do it. Young women do have a lot of confidence in themselves, I am so impressed by how people have the confidence to ask what they need to ask and to explore the topics that they want to explore. The whole process is interrelational but it’s also dynamic, and without change and the way in which we change our ideas, we wouldn’t be anywhere if we didn’t keep on asking questions, embracing changing, and making sense of it.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.