John C. Young Scholar explores role of gender categories in developing identity

Posted by Centre News in Gender Studies, News, Philosophy 13 Jun 2014

Warren McKnight JCY PortraitWarren McKnight ’14, a philosophy major and gender studies minor from Peachtree City, Ga., spent her senior year at Centre College exploring issues of gender as a John C. Young Scholar.

The May graduate believes that gender is more complicated than simply “tallying up one’s traits,” and going with the winning side, she says. Her paper, “Becoming Gendered: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Analysis,” addresses that complexity.

Phenomenology, she explains, is a discipline within philosophy that focuses on the experience of phenomena. Hermeneutics is a theory of text interpretation.

“A hermeneutic phenomenological analysis allows me to analyze gender as both a text and as a lived phenomenon,” she says.

Her project tackles the question of why we unquestioningly accept gender as an essential component to identity.

“My thesis is that we should consciously attempt to transcend gender categories in order to break down their currently compulsory, arbitrary and essentialist nature,” she says. “We have no say in our participation in [our gender system] because we are born into the idea that we must all be gendered, and even if we attempt to opt out of the gender system, we are still forced to engage it through our attempts to transcend it.”

McKnight uses the personal narratives of two transgender individuals to illustrate why she finds the accepted approach to gender to be flawed, and she offers suggestions for overcoming the “essentialist and problematic” meanings society gives to gender categories.

“I wanted to write this paper to voice the convictions I’ve long held about gender and gender categories, which I’ve had the opportunity to refine through my studies at Centre,” says McKnight. “This paper has given me the opportunity to synthesize two disciplines I’m passionate about.”

Being named a John C. Young Scholar was “a great motivating factor to write the paper,” she adds.

Now in its 25th year, the John C. Young Program provides funding and two terms of course credit for independent research and study. Young Scholars present their work and results at a formal symposium in late April. The name honors Centre’s fourth president, who helped establish Centre as a leading institution of higher education.

One of the hallmarks of a John C. Young experience is the opportunity to work closely with a faculty advisor, or, in McKnight’s case, with two. Sometimes the advisor also becomes the student.

“Warren’s project is outside of my area of expertise, but her passion for it gave me the courage to take a leap and work with her,” says Eva Cadavid, assistant professor of philosophy. “She has taught me a lot about ethnographies, about Heidegger and phenomenology, and about some of the interesting cases with transgendered individuals.”

McKnight also worked with Andrea Abrams, an anthropologist who chairs the gender studies program.

By taking on a project of this magnitude, McKnight learned to appreciate the importance of focus.

“Gender is a large and unwieldy topic that involves a multitude of factors,” McKnight says. “It can be difficult to resist the temptation to try to talk about everything. I’ve definitely had to reign myself in a few times throughout the process.”

She sees her research as being part of a larger discussion about gender and notes that there has been some progress in overcoming society’s gender limits. The Miss Universe pageant, for example, recently decided to allow transgender women to compete. And Facebook now offers users a number of new gender options.

McKnight hopes to parlay the research and writing skills she developed with her John C. Young paper into a career in publishing. Currently, she is an acquisitions intern at Yale University Press.

by Diane Johnson