Suzanne Kessler retired from her position at Purchase College, SUNY as Vice Provost and Dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Kempner Distinguished Professor of Psychology. She received her B.A. in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and her Ph.D. in social psychology from City University of New York. She is on the Board of Directors of Rehabilitation through the Arts, an organization that uses the creative arts in New York State prisons as a tool for reducing recidivism.
Her writings with Wendy McKenna (who she met when they were graduate students in the social-personality program at the Graduate Center) were influenced by Harold Garfinkel in ethnomethodology, Stanley Milgram, their social psychology professor, and sociologist, Peter McHugh, McKenna’s sociology professor.
Kessler and McKenna were the first to argue that the distinction between “gender” and “sex” is a socially constructed one and the latter (defined by biological markers) should not be privileged. Their articulation of what later became known as the social construction of gender was part of the foundation for works of well-known gender theorists, Judith Butler, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Kate Bornstein.
The importance of their work in feminist/gender theory was acknowledged in Mary Hawkesworth’s 1997 article in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society called, “Confounding Gender.” In it she investigates four efforts to theorize gender (Steven Smith’s, Judith Butler’s, R.W. Connell’s, and Kessler and McKenna’s). “The four works are the most ambitious efforts that I have found to theorize gender in ways that connect psyche, self, and social relations. They also represent some of the major methodological approaches (phenomenology, postmodern deconstruction, dialectical materialism, ethnomethodology) currently vying for the allegiance of feminist scholars.” Three years later, most of a 2000 issue of Feminism & Psychology was devoted to a reappraisal of their book with commentary by seven theorists (Mary Crawford, Carla Golden, Lenore Tiefer, Holly (later Aaron) Devor, Milton Diamond, Eva Lundgren, and Dallas Denny). The introductory essay states that when Kessler and McKenna wrote their book, “the social construction of gender, let alone sex, was still a relatively novel idea. They not only made the claim that sex is a belief system rather than a fact, but went on to analyze the interpretive practices that enable each of us to create the “fact” of two and only two sexes…The continuing important of Kessler and McKenna’s work is twofold: First, it provides compelling, lived examples of the social construction of gender in interaction….The second reason…is the current multiplicity of theoretical positions on gender mutability, coupled with the increased visibility of transgendered and intersex people.” The visibility of transgendered and intersex people has increased in the 21st century and it is clear that Kessler and McKenna’s theorizing both presaged and legitimized it. Gender fluidity is now taken-for-granted in many circles and codified in some laws.
Kessler, S. and McKenna, W. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. NY: Wiley-Interscience (1978); reprinted University of Chicago Press (1985).
Kessler, S. J. Lessons from the Intersexed. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, (1998).
Articles and chapters:
Michals, I. & Kessler, S. Prison Teachers and Their Students: A Circle of Satisfaction and Gain. The Journal of Correctional Education, 66, (2015) 47- 62.
Halperin, R., Kessler, S., & Braunschweiger, D. “Rehabilitation Through the Arts: Impact on participants’ engagement in educational programs.” The Journal of Correctional Education, 63, 1, (2012) 6 – 23.
Reis, E. and Kessler, S. “Why History Matters: Fetal Dex and Intersex.” The American Journal of Bioethics, 10, 9, (2010): 58 – 59.
McKenna W. and Kessler, S. “Transgendering.” In M. Evans, K. Davis, & J. Lorber (eds.) Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. London: Sage (2006): 342- 354. Reprinted in M. S. Kimmel and A. Aronson (eds.) The Gendered Society Reader. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Kessler, S.J. and McKenna, W. “The Primacy of Gender Attribution” In P. E. Devine and C. Wolf-Devine (eds.) Sex and Gender: A Spectrum of Views. Wadsworth/Thompson, (2003):43 – 53.
Kessler, S. Questioning Assumptions about Gender Assignment in Cases of Intersexuality. Dialogues in Pediatric Urology, 25, 6, (June 2002): 3-4.
McKenna, W. and Kessler, S.J. Who put the ‘Trans’ in Transgender? International Journal of Transgenderism, 4, 3, (September 2000). Reprinted in S. LaFont (ed) Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender, and Culture. N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.
McKenna, W. & Kessler, S.J. Gender Retrospective, Feminism and Psychology,10,1, (2000): 7-72.
McKenna, W. and Kessler, S. J. Who Needs Gender Theory? Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Spring (1997): 687-691. Also in C. Allen and J. A.. Howard (eds.) Provoking Feminisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (2000): 179-183.
Kessler, S. J. Creating Good-Looking Genitals in the Service of Gender. In M. Duberman (ed.) A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, vol 1. New York: New York University Press, (1997): 153-173.
Kessler, S. J. The Medical Construction of Gender: Case management of intersexed infants. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 15(1), (1990): 3-26.
McKenna, W. & Kessler, S. Asking taboo questions and doing taboo deeds. In K. Gergen & K. Davis (eds.) The Social Construction of the Person. N.Y. Springer‑Verlag, (1986): 241‑257.
Kessler, S. J. etal. (eds.). Heresies: Sex Issue. (1981): 3(4), issue l2.