Feminist metaphysics

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Feminist metaphysics aims to question how inquiries and answers in the field of metaphysics have supported sexism.[1] Feminist metaphysics overlaps with fields such as the philosophy of mind and philosophy of self.[1] Feminist metaphysicians such as Sally Haslanger,[2] Ásta,[3] and Judith Butler[3] have sought to explain the nature of gender in the interest of advancing feminist goals.

Another aim of feminist metaphysics has been to provide a basis for feminist activism by explaining what unites women as a group.[4] These accounts have historically centered on cisgender women, but philosophers such as Gayle Salamon,[5] Talia Mae Bettcher[6] and Robin Dembroff[7] have sought to further explain the genders of transgender and non-binary people.

Social construction[edit]

The theory of the social construction of gender emerged in feminism as a response to essentialist claims of women’s natural inferiority.[8] Simone de Beauvoir argues in her seminal work The Second Sex that, although biological features distinguish men and women, these features neither cause nor justify the social conditions which disadvantage women.[3]

She was the first feminist theorist to distinguish sex from gender, as is suggested by her famous line, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."[3] Since de Beauvoir, many feminists have argued that constructed categories reinforce social hierarchies because they appear to be natural.[9]

Later theorists would challenge de Beauvoir's commitment to the pre-social existence of sex, arguing that sex is socially constructed as well as gender.[3] For Elizabeth Grosz, the sex/gender distinction is still based on essentialism, and is a form of mind–body dualism.[8]

Monique Wittig argues that the division of bodies into sexes is the product of a heterosexual society.[10]

There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society.[11]

— Monique Wittig, The Category of Sex

The social character of sexual difference is also fundamental in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. Through a post-structuralist perspective, Butler criticizes the dependence on a pre-discursive sex upon which gender would be constructed, instead proposing gender as a performative doing.[12] This understanding has been particularly important for expanding feminist theory beyond the gender binary.[13]

Gender performativity[edit]

On Butler's hypothesis, the performative aspect of gender is perhaps most obvious in drag performance, which offers a rudimentary understanding of gender binaries in its emphasis on gender performance. Butler understands drag cannot be regarded as an example of subjective or singular identity, where "there is a 'one' who is prior to gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender decides with deliberation which gender it will be today".[14]: 21  Consequently, drag should not be considered the honest expression of its performer's intent. Rather, Butler suggests that what is performed "can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility".[14]: 24 , and that "[t]he critical promise of drag does not have to do with the proliferation of genders... but rather with the exposure of the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals".[14]: 26 

According to Butler, gender performance is only subversive because it is "the kind of effect that resists calculation", which is to say that signification is multiplicitous, that the subject is unable to control it, and so subversion is always occurring and always unpredictable.[14]: 29  Moya Lloyd suggests that the political potential of gender performances can be evaluated relative to similar past acts in similar contexts in order to assess their transgressive potential: "Even if we accept that there are incalculable effects to all (or most) statements or activities, this does not mean that we need to concede that there are no calculable effects."[15]

Conversely, Rosalyn Diprose lends a hard-line Foucauldian interpretation to her understanding of gender performance's political reach, as one's identity "is built on the invasion of the self by the gestures of others, who, by referring to other others, are already social beings".[16] Diprose implies that the individual's will, and the individual performance, is always subject to the dominant discourse of an Other (or Others), so as to restrict the transgressive potential of performance to the inscription of simply another dominant discourse.[16]

Female energy[edit]

In contrast to social constructionism, there are positive valuations of gender essentialism in feminist philosophy. Feminist theologian Mary Daly proposed in her remarkable work Gyn/Ecology (1978) the existence of a feminine nature that should be defended against "male barrenness".[17] "Since female energy is essentially biophilic", she writes, "the female spirit/body is the primary target in this perpetual war of aggression against life. Gyn/Ecology is the reclaiming of life-loving female energy."[18]

Janice Raymond had Daly as her advisor when writing The Transsexual Empire (1979), in which she states: "It is not hard to understand why transsexuals want to become lesbian-feminists. They indeed have discovered where strong female energy exists and want to capture it."[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Haslanger, Sally; Sveinsdóttir, Ásta Kristjana (2011). "Feminist Metaphysics". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 ed.). ISSN 1095-5054. OCLC 224325075.
  2. ^ Haslanger, Sally (March 2000). "Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?". Noûs. 34 (1): 31–55. doi:10.1111/0029-4624.00201. ISSN 0029-4624.
  3. ^ a b c d e Sveinsdóttir, Ásta Kristjana (2011). "The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender". Feminist Metaphysics: Explorations in the Ontology of Sex, Gender and the Self. Springer Netherlands: 47–65. doi:10.1007/978-90-481-3783-1_4.
  4. ^ Bach, Theodore (January 2012). "Gender Is a Natural Kind with a Historical Essence". Ethics. 122 (2): 231–272. doi:10.1086/663232. ISSN 0014-1704. S2CID 143867213.
  5. ^ Salamon, Gayle (2010). Assuming a body: transgender and rhetorics of materiality. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press. ISBN 9780231149594.
  6. ^ Bettcher, Talia. Power, Nicholas; Halwani, Raja; Soble, Alan (eds.). "Trans Women and the Meaning of "Woman"". The Philosophy of Sex: 233–250.
  7. ^ Dembroff, Robin (10 August 2019). "Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind" (PDF). Philosopher's Imprint. S2CID 111381570. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 February 2020.
  8. ^ a b Grosz, Elizabeth (2011). Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism (11. Dr. ed.). Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. pp. 3–24. ISBN 9780253208620.
  9. ^ Warnke, Georgia (2008). After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender. Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88281-1. OCLC 165408056.
  10. ^ Zerilli, Linda (1990). "The Trojan Horse of Universalism: Language as a "War Machine" in the Writings of Monique Wittig". Social Text (25/26): 146–170. doi:10.2307/466245. ISSN 0164-2472.
  11. ^ Wittig, Monique (2001). "The Category of Sex.". The straight mind and other essays (5. [print.] ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-7917-1.
  12. ^ Hood-Williams, John; Harrison, Wendy Cealey (February 1998). "Trouble with Gender". The Sociological Review. 46 (1): 73–94. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.00090. ISSN 0038-0261.
  13. ^ Wight, Julie (31 October 2011). "Facing Gender Performativity: How Transgender Performances and Performativity Trouble Facework Research". Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research. 10 (1).
  14. ^ a b c d Butler, Judith (November 1993). "Critically queer". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 1 (1): 17–32. doi:10.1215/10642684-1-1-17.
  15. ^ Lloyd, Moya (April 1999). "Performativity, parody, politics". Theory, Culture & Society. 16 (2): 207. doi:10.1177/02632769922050476. S2CID 145251297.
  16. ^ a b Diprose, Rosalyn (1994). The bodies of women: ethics, embodiment, and sexual difference. London New York: Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 9780415097833.
  17. ^ Alcoff, Linda (1988). "Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory". Signs. 13 (3): 405–436. ISSN 0097-9740.
  18. ^ Daly, Mary (1978). Gyn-ecology: the metaethics of radical feminism. Boston: Beacon. p. 355. ISBN 978-0-8070-1511-7.
  19. ^ Raymond, Janice G. (1994). The transsexual empire: the making of the she-male. Athene series (Reissued with a new introduction on transgender, reprint ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-8077-6272-1.

Further reading[edit]