What is a Genealogical Explanation of Gender?

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

In a previous piece, I discussed the implications of Gender Essentialism for intersectional feminism. I proposed a Genealogical explanation of gender as a more plausible alternative. In this article I shall explore the Genealogical explanation and attempt to combat possible worries with the view.

First let us know what we mean by Gender Essentialism.  I shall give a definition as proposed by Charlotte Witt;[1] Gender Essentialism says there is some property common to all women, the possession of which is necessary and sufficient for kind membership. On this view gender might be socially or biologically defined.

Judith Butler implements the concept of a Genealogy (much like that of Foucault) so as to adapt Gender Essentialism. Butler successfully attempts to put forward her concept of ‘peformativity’; ‘gender exists only insofar as it is ritualistically and receptively performed’[2]. Butler argues that this peformativity leads to more concrete and sustained gender roles. This is known as the Genealogical Explanation of gender. Let us note that if gender is a social kind then it is a social feature of some sort. Nonetheless, we can still disentangle it from other social features. For example, it is distinct from money as a social kind; money, put into a certain social context, might have the feature to increase social status. On the other hand, gender as a social kind will have a different impact. On Alison Stone’s reading of Butler, this genealogical explanation allows Butler to propose a coalitional feminist politics. I shall ultimately suggest Stone’s analysis to be promising.  I shall first explicate the concept of a genealogy.

The concept of a genealogy is implemented as a medium to deny that women have any necessary and sufficient common features (as traditional Essentialism says). Nonetheless, this theory can still preserve the idea that women form a collective group, which as we have seen, many deem necessary for political activism. The thing that defines one as a woman is this practice of continually adapting to society’s interpretation of femininity; in this way it is not a version of Gender Essentialism but something separate. If femininity and masculinity are social constructs, a woman is a woman through their 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. The genealogical explanation says that there is not one single feature, apart from maybe trivial ones (e.g being human) that puts one in the category ‘woman’. This is because the genealogical explanation says that women are grouped as one because they are located within a history of overlapping practices and reinterpretations of femininity. On this view, that history no more defines an important property of a person than being in a room does, but it does importantly clarify them for economic and social life. As women become women by reworking pre-established cultural interpretations of femininity, there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to the category ‘woman’ as Gender Essentialism entails.

I shall attempt to and put forward a potential objection to the genealogical explanation.  Arguably, it seems that we might be dissatisfied with this view as it might not do justice to our intuitions about problem cases. Let us consider the following case. There is a situation in which one in five people get invited to drinks. There are random people who are invited and come to the party. They are clearly a collective group at the party; we could say that the property they all have in common is that they have received an invite. Nonetheless, we might argue that it seems too strong to say that this is a feature they hold. This might seem somewhat artificial. That is, it does not tell us anything about them in same way as biological or other social features perhaps might. In the same way, Butler’s concept of a genealogy (and thereby women being unified by an overlapping history, rather than any necessary and sufficient conditions) might not be a strong enough explanation for them belonging to the same group.

Ultimately, I will want to reject this consequence of the genealogical explanation. This is motivated by the observation that it seems the moment we try and say something concrete, it can become problematic; in the context of Gender Essentialism (where there are prescribed properties of features) which might be biological or social. I argue that we therefore need to say something about why that objection does not apply in this account.

My objection goes as follows. The genealogical explanation is being criticised for being too artificial. I suggest that this is actually where the success of the view stems from. As we have seen, it is 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 is party to critique because 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).

I argue that this holds significant intuitive appeal and should not be dismissed as the objection above might suggest. It provides an explanation for the diversity of women’s lives whilst successfully maintaining that women do not need to be defined under the same umbrella.  I argue that 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.  It is therefore not artificial, but instead sufficiently broad, to hold a definition which allows for such seemingly ‘arbitrary’ categorisation. The genealogical concept allows for the conclusion that 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).  In my view this seems to support one of the core messages behind the intersectional feminist movement.

Therefore I reject the claim that Gender Essentialism makes surrounding the claim we must put forward necessary and sufficient conditions to be a member of the category ‘woman’. Instead, I suggest that we should adopt a radically different approach, as defined on the Genealogical account.



[1] Charlotte Witt, ‘The Metaphysics of Gender’, Oxford University Press, 2011

[2] Stone, A. Contemporary Politcal Theory (2005) 4: 4. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300135, Found in Abstract

Picture credit: https://www.wikiart.org/en/henry-darger/untitled-battle-scene-during-lightning-storm-naked-children-with-rifles

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