Gender essentialism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In feminist theory and gender studies, gender essentialism is the attribution of a fixed essence to women.[1] Women's essence is assumed to be universal and is generally identified with those characteristics viewed as being specifically feminine.[1] These ideas of femininity are usually biologized are often preoccupied with psychological characteristics, such as nurturance, empathy, support, non-competitiveness, etc.[1] Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz states in her 1995 publication, Space, time and perversion: essays on the politics of bodies, that essentialism "entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times. It implies a limit of the variations and possibilities of change—it is not possible for a subject to act in a manner contrary to her essence. Her essence underlies all the apparent variations differentiating women from each other. Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristic, given attributes, and ahistorical functions that limit the possibilities of change and thus of social reorganization."[1]

Furthermore, biologism is a particular form of essentialism that defines women's essence in terms of biological capacities.[1] This form of essentialism is based on a form of reductionism, meaning that social and cultural factors are the effects of biological causes.[1] Biological reductivism "claim[s] that anatomical and physiological differences—especially reproductive differences—characteristic of human males and females determine both the meaning of masculinity and femininity and the appropriately different positions of men and women in society".[2] Biologism uses the functions of reproduction, nurturance, neurology, neurophysiology, and endocrinology to limit women's social and psychological possibilities according to biologically established limits.[1] It asserts the science of biology to constitute an unalterable definition of identity, which inevitably "amounts to a permanent form of social containment for women".[1] Naturalism is also a part of the system of essentialism where a fixed nature is postulated for women through the means of theological or ontological rather than biological grounds. An example of this would be the claim that women's nature is a God-given attribute, or the ontological invariants in Sartrean existentialism or Freudian psychoanalysis that distinguish the sexes in the "claim that the human subject is somehow free or that the subjects social position is a function of his or her genital morphology".[1] These systems are used to homogenize women into one singular category and to strengthen a binary between men and women.[1]

Disrupting gender essentialism[edit]

Judith Butler and gender performativity[edit]

Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity can be seen as a means to show "the ways in which reified and naturalized conceptions of gender might be understood as constituted and, hence, capable of being constituted differently".[3] Butler utilizes the phenomenological theory of acts which has been espoused by Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead, which seeks to explain the mundane way in which "social agents constitute social reality through language gesture and all manner of symbolic social sign", to create her conception of gender performativity.[3] She begins by quoting Simone de Beauvoir's claim:

" is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman."[4]

This statement distinguishes sex from gender suggesting that gender is an aspect of identity that is gradually acquired.[5] This distinction between sex, as the anatomical and factic aspects of the female body, and gender, as the cultural meaning that forms the body and the various modes of bodily articulation, means that it is "no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity".[5] Butler interprets this claim as an appropriation of the doctrine of constituting acts from the tradition of phenomenology.[3] Through this understanding Butler concludes that "gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self".[3] Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker also conceptualize gender "as a routine, methodical, and ongoing accomplishment, which involves a complex of perceptual, interactional and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of manly and womanly 'natures'" in their 1995 text Doing Difference.[6]

This does not mean that the material nature of the human body is denied, instead, it is re-comprehended as separate from the process by which "the body comes to bear cultural meanings".[3] Therefore, the essence of gender is not natural because gender itself is not a natural fact.[3][5] Gender is the outcome of the sedimentation of specific corporeal acts that have been inscribed through repetition and rearticulation over time onto the body.[3] "If the reality of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized 'sex' or 'gender' which gender performances ostensibly express".[3]

Poststructuralism and gender essentialism[edit]

Poststructuralism indicates "a field of critical practices that cannot be totalized and that, therefore, interrogate the formative and exclusionary power of sexual difference", says Butler.[7] Therefore, through lens of poststructuralism, the critique of gender essentialism is possible because these poststructuralist theory generates analyses, critiques, and political interventions, and opens up a political imaginary for feminism that otherwise has been constrained.[7] A feminist poststructuralism does not designate a position from which one operates, but instead it offers a set of tools and terms to be "reused and rethought, exposed as strategic instruments and effects, and subjected to a critical reinscription and redeployment".[7]

Gender essentialism and exclusion in feminist theory[edit]


Analyzing gender has been a concern of feminist theory, thus there have been many modes of understanding how gender addresses meaning.[2] However, developing such theories of gender can obscure the significance of other aspects of women's identities, such as race, class, and sexual orientation, which marginalizes the experiences and voices of women of colour, non-Western women, working-class women, queer women, and trans women.[2] As a challenge to feminist theory, essentialism refers to the problem of theorizing gender as both an identity and a mark of difference. This refers to a problem for the concept of subjectivity presupposed by feminist theories of gender.[2] There are arguments primarily by black and lesbian feminists that feminist theory has capitalized on the idea of gender essentialism by using the category of gender to appeal to "women's experience" as a whole.[2] By doing this, feminist theory makes universalizing and normalizing claims for and about women, which are only true of white, Western, heterosexual, cisgender, middle- or upper-class women,[2] but which it implies are situations, perspectives and experiences true to all women. Patrice DiQuinzio discusses "how critics of exclusion see this as a function of feminist theory's commitment to theorizing gender exclusively and articulating women's experiences in terms of gender alone".[2] Instead one[who?] must theorize feminism in a way that takes the interlocking category of experiences between race, class, gender, and sexuality into consideration; an intersectional model of thinking.[6]


DiQuinzio goes on to discuss how essentialism and exclusion work in relation to motherhood. Feminist theory which has used the idea of woman's essence to link gender socialization with exclusively female mothering, such as Nancy Chodorow's work, can be exclusionary and essentialist in the ways that it involves making universalizing and normalizing claims about mothers without taking social, historical, or cultural context into account.[2] Judith Butler claims that "the effort to characterize a feminine specificity through recourse to maternity, whether biological or social, produce[s] a factionalization and even a disavowal of feminism altogether".[7] Not all women are mothers; "some cannot be some are too young or too old to be, some choose not to be, and for some who are mothers, that is not necessarily the rallying point of their politicization in feminism".[7]


Furthermore, the essentialism of gender in feminist theory presents a problem when understanding transfeminism. Instead of understanding trans studies as another subsection or subjectivity to be subsumed under the category of "woman", we understand the task of trans studies to be "the breaking apart of this category, particularly if that breaking requires a new articulation of the relation between sex and gender, male and female".[8] Trans subjectivity challenges the binary of gender essentialism as it disrupts the "fixed taxonomies of gender" and this creates a resistance in women's studies, which as a discipline has historically depended upon the fixedness of gender.[8] The expressions that exist in trans identities break down the very possibility of gender essentialism by queering the binary of gender, gender roles and expectations.[9] In recent years through the written work of transfeminists like Sandy Stone, the theory around trans women and their inclusion into feminist spaces has opened, just like it has opened in respect to race, class, sexuality and ability historically.

Gender Essentialism and Child Development[edit]

Social categories such as gender is often essentialized by not only adults but also children, as young children are recorded to display essentialist beliefs about gender preferences and indications.[10] Proponents of gender essentialism propose that young children from the age of 4 to 10 show the tendency to endorse the role of nature in determining gender-stereotyped properties, an "early bias to view gender categories as predictive of essential" which gradually declines as they pass elementary school years.[11] Another indicator of gender essentialism in child development is how they begin to employ essentialist manifestation as a tool for reasoning and perceiving gender stereotyping from as young as 24 months.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Grosz, Elizabeth (1995). Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. New York: Routledge. Retrieved 17 March 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h DiQuinzio, Patrice (1993). "Exclusion and Essentialism in Feminist Theory: The Problem of Mothering". Hypatia. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Butler, Judith (1988). "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory". Theatre Journal Vol. 4. 
  4. ^ de Beauvoir, Simone (1973). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books. p. 301. 
  5. ^ a b c Butler, Judith (1986). "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex". Yale French Studies. 
  6. ^ a b West, Candace; Fenstermaker, Sarah (1995). "Doing Difference". Gender and Society (Vol. 9). 
  7. ^ a b c d e Butler, Judith; Scott, Joan W. (1992). Feminists theorize the political. New York, London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc. 
  8. ^ a b Scott, Joan Wallach (2008). "Transfeminism and the Future of Gender". Women's Studies on the Edge. Duke University Press. 
  9. ^ Jakubowski, Kaylee (2015). "No, The Existence of Trans People Doesn't Validate Gender Essentialism". 
  10. ^ Meredith, Susan, Meyer, Gelman (November 2016). "Gender Essentialism in Children and Parents: Implications for the Developme...: EBSCOhost". Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  11. ^ Taylor, Morgan (1996). "The Development of children's beliefs about social and biological aspects o...: EBSCOhost". Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  12. ^ Poulin-Dubois, Serbin, Eichstedt and Sen, Diane, Lisa A., Julie A. and Maya G. (2002). "Men Don’t Put on Make-up: Toddlers’ Knowledge of the Gender Stereotyping of Household Activities". doi:10.1111/1467-9507.00193. Archived from the original on 2017-03-17. Retrieved 2017-03-17.