Gertrude Stein - Language in Undestanding Gender - Karren LaLonde Alenier  Scene4 Magazine Special Issue “Arts&Gender” April 0414

Karren LaLonde Alenier


April 2014

"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." Gertrude Stein

Speaking about gender in the arts immediately brings to mind Gertrude Stein and, for this writer, Stein's first love poem Tender Buttons where there never seems to be any one answer if any at all. If anything has been learned from studying Tender Buttons, language plays largely in understanding gender.


What is gender? Interestingly, a look at dictionary definitions, and this writer will reference The Free Dictionary on the Internet, shows the first definition of gender deals with grammar. Definitions two and three deal with human sexuality. The roots of gender deal with classification, as in what kind, what category.

gen·der  (jĕn′dər)

1. Grammar

a. A grammatical category used in the classification of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and, in some languages, verbs that may be arbitrary or based on characteristics such as sex or animacy and that determines agreement with or selection of modifiers, referents, or grammatical forms.

b. One category of such a set.

c. The classification of a word or grammatical form in such a category.

d. The distinguishing form or forms used.

2. Sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture.


a. The condition of being female or male; sex.

b. Females or males considered as a group: expressions used by one gender.

tr.v.gen·dered, gen·der·ing, gen·ders

To engender.

[Middle English gendre, from Old French, kind, gender, from Latin genus, gener-; see genə- in Indo-European roots.]

As Gertrude Stein scholars will be quick to establish, Stein's writing agenda is about establishing identity—her sense of self. She does this through her writing with a particular emphasis on grammar. However, Stein's goal is to renew the components of writing—words—by shaking up the grammar.

For clarity, this writer believes that before a reader can have a sympathetic reading of Stein's challenging work, one ought to understand some things about gender and sex. In the post "Understanding gender diversity: sex and gender are not the same thing" from The Guardian's Mind Your Language Blog, the following definitions and caveats are provided:

Gender = one's innate sense of self.

Sex = biology, i.e., sex assigned at birth.

Transgender refers to someone whose sex and gender do not match.

Cisgender refers to those whose sex and gender do match.

Transsexual (adjective) is a medical definition, not a synonym for transgender, and should be avoided unless specifically discussing medical terminology and/or surgical treatment.

The following are also offensive and should never be used unless in direct quotation: "tranny" (whether as a contraction of transsexual or transvestite), "shim", "he-she", "she-male", "gender-bender", "transsexual" as a noun and similar epithets.


One should understand that while Stein had a male approach for how she conducted her life, there is no evidence to suggest that she wished she could have changed her body to be a man's instead of a woman's. Before the term butch was used, the French labeled Stein's brand of lesbianism hommesse. And please do not ever use the terminology male-identified woman while speaking of Stein. A male-identified woman favors the male gender usually at the expense of women. In other words, this is a woman who puts women down in the way a sexist man would. While it is true that Stein relegated women who came to 27 rue de Fleurus to Alice's company, Stein's goal was to sit with the power brokers—the men. In order to be a genius and get recognized as a genius, men had to see her as an equal.

Stein studied medicine for four years at Johns Hopkins University and came away with a medical doctor's appreciation for the human body. She also worked in areas concerning the female body, including pregnancy and birth. This writer believes that besides guidance from her Harvard professor William James to go into the field of human medicine, Stein may have been influenced by the slow death of her mother who died from a female cancer. Stein, born in 1874, was 14 when her mother Amelia (Milly) Stein died. Stein was 72 when she died of uterine cancer, a disease that scientists believe might be passed on genetically. Until recent research work by scholar Barbara Will, most Stein biographers guessed she had had stomach cancer, of which her life-long partner Alice B. Toklas did not disabuse them. This writer believes that Stein did not wish the public to know that a female disease had killed her. Does that suggest ambivalence about her gender identity or just a wish to keep such information private?

Perhaps a better category for Stein is genderqueer, an umbrella term that according to Wikipedia includes:

    having an overlap of, or indefinite lines between, gender identity and sexual and romantic orientation.[2]
    two or more genders (bigender, trigender, pangender);
    without a gender (nongendered, genderless, agender; neutrois);
    moving between genders or with a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid);[3]
    third gender or other-gendered; includes those who do not place a name to their gender;[4]

Tossed into the category of genderqueer is the word androgynous, which seems to embrace gender ambiguity. This writer sees Stein as someone with a fluctuating gender identity but also as someone who refused to be pinned down to any category. While some genderqueers might like to be addressed with the title Mx. (as opposed to Mr. or Ms.), Stein was perfectly receptive to being addressed as Miss Stein.

And would Stein have bothered with gender-neutral pronouns that some current day genderqueers prefer? These are words (as quoted from Wikipedia) such as: one, ze, sie, hir, co, ey or singular "they", "their" and "them" may be used in place of the conventional binary pronouns "her" or "him". Hard to say about how Stein would have received these replacement words if she herself had not invented them.

What we do know about Stein is that in her work, she called herself husband. In everyday life, she and Alice were not public about their marriage, which is how they referred in private to their relationship. However, Stein dressed as a woman, adopting long skirts, blouses with broaches, vests, and Mary Jane style shoes. Incredibly, she cared about what she wore and dressed for comfort. At the end of her life, she had an outfit designed by Pierre Balmain, a new but soon-to-be top designer. In the mid 1920's seeing that liberated women (flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald, for example, but others also who were intellectuals) had short hair, she got Alice to cut off her long hair and wore it very short (like a man's haircut) the rest of her life.


What seems appropriate now is a consumable slice of Tender Buttons to illustrate some of the gender work that Gertrude Stein offers. Here are two tiny segments from Section 1 "Objects" of Stein's first of many love poems to her wife Alice B. Toklas:

A color in shaving, a saloon is well placed in the centre of an alley.

A blind agitation is manly and uttermost.

These two subpoems were discussed by the Buttons Collective and among the things said were:

"The poem is about the pelvic area of Gertrude's lover Alice. In the center of that area lies Gertrude's 'saloon,' the place where she gets drunk sexually."

"Let me riff a bit on this—alley = bowling alley, bowling lane with the vagina shape like a ten-pin setup; saloon = a place to get a drink as well as a place where men go to have a good time.

"A color in shaving ==> shaving cream ==>semen

"saloon ==> a man's pelvic area,  sal = the penis connected to oo = the balls which are slightly behind.

"Here, GS is juxtaposing male genitalia with female genitalia as they would be positioned during the sex act—a saloon, the penis, is well placed in the center of the alley, the vagina.  And when the placement is right, there is color in shaving...there is semen.

"Maybe the saloon is a bar, a place or a room with a suggestion of sexual availability and freedom, a sexual spectacle. A spectacular spectacle.

"And the OO in saloon, well that looks like a pair of specs and a pair of breasts or a nice big bottom. And well placed in the centre of an alley lies anal ley,an anal lay or anally perhaps. My gaydar doth flash. There is color in shaving such an establishment nearby and a masculinity in shaving (and having), unless you think of shaving legs that is more the preserve of the feminine. And a saloon (a room) at the centre of an alley, that alley could be seen as two legs (smooth and shaven) and the saloon at their centre (and up at the top) is a spectacle (eye glass) to behold. OO er!

"And those double l's in well and alley look like a pair of legs too!"

"…ruminating on the French word for (aller—think alley), something … brought up earlier—we Buttons have a habit relay teamwork:

"I think that Vous allez?Do you go?

is French slang for are you gay?

"I think this, because I was in a guitar store in Montreal once & on my way out a guy said Vous allez?

"I thought he was asking if I was leaving, so I said oui & left,
but I noticed an odd & lascivious look on his face as I did so."

"And while it seems we Buttons worked exclusively on the physical and imaginative planes (dealing with word play), "Eye Glasses." and "A Cutlet." opened exploration of the outer world as well as Gertrude Stein's inner world. Stein has said she was a male persona, the husband in the union with Alice Toklas, and so these manly manifestations of shaving, saloons, and blind agitation offered a challenge to ordinary reality.

"While there were many other associations that were made in this study session that included mutton chop sideburns, the drinking of absinthe (Green fairy, anyone?), the extremely near-sighted friend of Gertrude and Alice—Marie Laurencin, and her boyfriend the gifted poet who promoted cubism Guillaume Apollinaire, Steiny thinks this summary … will be enough:"

"Remember that carafe and the hurt color? I'm thinking of colorless vodka, glassy eyes behind the monocles. The shavings of ice, the speak-easy or saloon where everybody knows your name so long as you can find the alley.

"Gertrude didn't approve of drunks as I recall, she saw too many artists on absinthe. And there was Natalie Barney's crowd misbehaving and blaming the liquor.

"Cocktail shaker, a squirt of shaving cream, the naked pink face, the saloon [car] right out there in the centre of the dark alley, alleycats slinking around, the blood from a shaving cut that dries to brown crumble—I keep thinking of Hemingway, bar-lover, promiscuous, that pumped-up fake macho, the vanity of those who won't wear eyeglasses. Do you wear glasses in order to shave safely?"


What this writer has learned is like standing before an abstract painting, the appreciation of Tender Buttons gives wide berth in time and space to what can be seen, felt, imagined, dreamed. There are no correct answers, only lots more questions. Who is or was Stein? While we wonder, she was also puzzling out that question of identity, be it gender identity or intellectual identity. The best advice for how to receive Gertrude Stein and her body of work comes from the great Modernist herself: "Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something."

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren AlenierKarren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She also writes a monthly column in Scene4
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