‘What’s Gender Got to Do With it?’

Speaking at Perry World House (PWH), former United Nations deputy high commissioner for human rights Kate Gilmore, a PWH Visiting Fellow, addressed regressive reproductive and gender-based policies that have gained traction globally.

Kate Gilmore sits on a chair on a stage holding a microphone in front of audience members and a Penn shield and the words Perry World House are behind her.
Kate Gilmore (center) spoke to the audience about why gender regressive policies are gaining traction globally. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

Regressive and repressive gender policies are taking hold in many places around the world. Cases in point: anti-feminist presidents in Argentina and Ecuador, the continued crises for women in Afghanistan, even the 1864 anti-abortion law recently revived in Arizona

Kate Gilmore, a former United Nations deputy high commissioner for human rights and a professor-in-practice with the London School of Economics and Political Science spoke about why these types of reproductive and gender-based policies have gained such traction in a recent event at Perry World House (PWH). Gilmore is the 2023-24 Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow at PWH. She shares this academic year’s fellowship—a gift from alumni Hemal N. Mirani and Paritosh V. Thakore—with Philip Alston.

The discussion titled “What’s Gender Got to Do With it?”—a riff on the Tina Turner hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”—was moderated by Sarah Banet-Weiser, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication.

In introducing Gilmore at the start of the event, Perry World House Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called her “an extraordinary and loud champion of the rights of gender, always thoughtful, strong and funny; loving and caring to those who need her—and that’s many of us—and scary to those who oppose her. Above all she’s utterly brilliant.”

Gilmore took to the podium, first leading the audience through a litany of dates, nation states, and sweeping changes and laws that governments around the globe have made targeting gender and gender ideology. She started with 2013, the year Ecuador’s president publicly denounced sex education, and ended with last month, when Gambia announced it was considering a repeal of the ban on female genital mutilation.

She went on to highlight the ways in which it doesn’t add up that world leaders should be promoting these regressive laws, since the data shows that gender equality is a better predictor of peace and prosperity than something like the GDP. When “22 white men hold more wealth than all the women of Africa,” people need to look at this topic differently, she said. 

Gilmore connected the dots of anti-abortion groups from CitizenGO to the World Congress of Families to Citizens United, then painstakingly outlined the movers and shakers who made it their goal to create the U.S. anti-abortion movement as a way to retain power and lure support from a formerly-ignored voting bloc, including Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, former President Ronald Reagan, and activists Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell. Repressive laws benefit rich, white men, she said. 

“I tell you this story because I am so troubled we are not asking the right questions,” she said. “We’ve allowed ourselves to be drawn into a polarized debate as if between arguments of equal merit, as if you’re either for or against abortion. And I’m saying that is not the right question. The question we have to ask is, who is winning? And who is losing with homophobia, transphobia, and anti-abortionism?”

She cited political theorist and feminist writer Cynthia Enloe, who urged those interested in gender equality to be more curious.

“‘You’ve got to ask better questions,’ she said to us all. What’s gender got to do with it? Everything, it seems,” Gilmore said.

Kate Gilmore looks at Sarah Banet-Weiser, who is gesturing while speaking into a microphone on the stage at Perry World House.
Sarah Banet-Weiser, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication (right) moderated the talk with Kate Gilmore (left). (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

In launching the discussion, Banet-Weiser asked Gilmore to talk about the threat that women’s bodies pose. 

“There’s this idea that there is a zero-sum game; if women win, men lose. Period,” Banet-Weiser said. “The threat that is posed by this notion of gender equality is something that is not really addressed.”

Gilmore said she thinks that all humans are insecure in their sexuality and genders. While many struggle describing and discussing these issues, “the science shows us that if we develop these skills, many good things will come from it: better self-esteem, less sexual violence, better sexual health,” she said. “So why are we having sex education books removed from the libraries?”

Behind gender-based repression is the intention “to preserve and uphold the wealth and privilege of a tiny minority of people,” Gilmore said. “What happens to us when we’re distracted and divided? We are far easier to fool.”

Audience questions tackled topics like whether religion is partly to blame for these regressive policies and what are some bright spots in the world where progress has been made. One audience member asked Gilmore’s thoughts on whether cisgender women’s rights and transgender women’s rights are butting up against each other.

Gilmore called it a manufactured issue.

“There’s only one answer,” she said. “Each and every one of us—to the exclusion of none of us—is entitled to dignity in identity and intimacy in self-determining what it means to be human. Under human rights, states cannot legitimately declare one identity is better than the other, or that one identity only can be protected from abuse, discrimination, and attack. And that, sadly, is what some of us in the women’s movement have been falling for.”