Wendy McKenna received her B.A. in psychology from Antioch College and her doctorate in social psychology from CUNY. For many years she has been professor of sociology at Purchase College (from which she is about to retire) and adjunct associate professor of psychology at Barnard College. Her goal as a professor is to teach students how to ask questions.She also had a private practice in psychotherapy from 1981-2013 and was certified as a sex educator.
Her writings with Suzanne Kessler (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, who was her most important mentor at the Graduate Center. 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. As the 40th anniversary of the publication of their book approaches, gender fluidity is now taken-for-granted in many circles and codified in some laws.
Kessler, S. & McKenna, W. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. New York: Wiley- Interscience, l978. (paper back edition: University of Chicago Press, l985).
McKenna, W. and Kessler, S.J. Transgendering: Blurring the boundaries of gender. In K. Davies, M. Evans and J. Lorber (eds.). Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. London: Sage, 2006, 342-354.
McKenna, W. and Kessler, S.J. Review of As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto. In Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31 (3) June 2002: 301-303.
McKenna,W. and Kessler, S.J. Who put the “Trans”in Transgender? International Journal of Transgenderism, September 2000 4, 3. Reprinted in S. LaFont (ed) Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender, and Culture. Prentice Hall, 2002.
McKenna, W. and Kessler, S. Who Needs Gender Theory? Signs: Journal of Women, Culture and Society, 1997, 22 (3), 687-691. Also in C. Allen and J. A.. Howard (eds.) Provoking Feminisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, 179-183.
McKenna W. & Kessler, S. Experimental design as a source of sex bias in social psychology. Sex Roles, l977, 3, ll7-l28.