Is Gender Essentialism bad for the intersectional feminist movement?

Harriet Whitehead is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

Gender Essentialism says that there is a specific feature or ‘essence’ that defines what it is to be a woman. This is often held to be a negative theory from the feminist perspective. This is because with the definition, many people feel a normative claim (that is, about how things ought to be) comes about; namely, that because men and women are fundamentally different, they ought to behave differently.

If this conclusion does follow it might advocate for the gender roles we see entrenched in our societies. This seems opposed to the prevailing thought in feminist theory that says our gender is a social construct rather than an objective thing. As Simone de Beauvoir infamously puts it: ‘one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman’.

The line of thought behind the concern that men and women ought to behave differently is as follows. Gender Essentialism says there is a feature that defines what it is to be a woman. The feature might be a biological category or it might be a characteristic of our personality. Therefore, those who do not adhere to such categories are left out of the picture. For example, if this feature is a strong maternal instinct, those who might not hold this instinct will not be included in the definition of a woman. So, if one needs feature A to be defined as B and one lacks feature A, one cannot be defined as B. This would be problematic for those who identify as A (women), whilst lacking said feature (not B).

Consequently, if the feminist movement wants to strive to aid all people identifying as women (regardless of them holding this feature), Gender Essentialism might be problematic. If the theory does reinforce gender roles, it might leave out transgender women, police sexual preferences and bring about a whole host of oppressive consequences that the intersectional feminist movements would want to reject.

Although these are alarming claims against the intersectional feminist movement, Gender Essentialism does not necessarily have these consequences: it can actually aid intersectional feminism. I will use the idea of a Genealogy rather than strict Essentialism to suggest how. This form of Essentialism keeps the possibility of feminist activism, rather than undermining feminist politics. This is because if feminism’s goal is stopping the oppression of women, one needs first to define what a woman is, in order to fight for their position.

Judith Butler implements the concept of Genealogy (much like that of Foucault) so as to adapt Gender Essentialism. This theory allows us to deny that women have any necessary or common features (as traditional Essentialism says) but still preserves the idea that women form a collective group. This is because Genealogy says that women are grouped as one because they are located within a history of overlapping practices and reinterpretations of femininity.

This means that women become women by reworking pre-established cultural interpretations of femininity. So the ‘essence’ that defines one as a woman is this practice of continually adapting to society’s interpretation of femininity. If femininity and masculinity are social constructs, a woman is a woman through her relationship with the prescribed standard set upon them. In being told to dress a certain way or exhibit certain characteristics and behaviours, then ones reaction to them (whether it be to adopt these practices or reject them) puts them in a context of femininity. Through this unavoidable relationship with femininity (even if one chooses to reject such standards) a woman is located within this history.

To an extent this does define what a woman is, which might arguably be useful for feminist politics. Nonetheless, it does not point to any necessary feature that a woman ought to possess (such as certain biological attributes or secondary characteristics), but it defines one within a historical context. Women can therefore work in a coalition (where coalition means an aligned action of persons whom do not necessarily have to share a specific feature).

If this concept of Genealogy can replace the traditional notion of Gender Essentialism, then feminist activism can be seen as a coalition of people, rather than a group of people unified by the same feature.

This seems to have some intuitive appeal as it provides an explanation for the diversity of women’s lives: women do not need to be defined under the same umbrella. The only kind of feminism that makes sense is one that includes people from a scope of different backgrounds, or it would be too narrow a concept. So, people who experience different privileges because of prevailing societal structures can still work together, should they choose, even though their experiences of oppression are not necessarily the same. This seems to support one of the core messages behind the intersectional feminist movement.

Genealogy in this context does not necessarily tell us about how to act, rather it gives an account of what it is to be a woman. Yet in the same way, the negative arguments associated with Essentialism also do not make normative claims about how we ought to act, merely about what it is to be a woman.

Therefore, Gender Essentialism is not automatically bad for the intersectional feminist movement. This is first because it makes no normative claim and second, because if it were too, it could use the Genealogical conception. This would, as discussed, work by saying we are joined by our trying to interpret concepts of femininity, rather than a feature. It would therefore mean an intersectional feminism is one that makes most sense, given our metaphysics.

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