Thursday, September 3, 2009

Who do we mean when we say "women"?

"Essentialism," and specifically in this context "gender essentialism," refers to the idea of a universal female experience that differs from male experience at a basic, significant level. The common assumption that men and women are essentially different in the way we think, interact, react, and communicate ("Men are from Mars, women are from Venus") perhaps represents the pinnacle of essentialism. The corollary to this idea is that all women share essential characteristics: that we all think, relate, and communicate in similar ways regardless of our individual backgrounds and personalities. This viewpoint is often reinforced by reports of studies in evolutionary psychology that focus on gender differences. It's an ancient argument that's been used to support all manner of inequalities between the sexes.

Essentialist concepts also crop up quite often in contemporary feminist thought. In an extract from Gender and Law: Theory, Doctrine, Commentary, Katharine T. Bartlett and Angela Harris identify seven different meanings of essentialism within feminism, including the following:

  • "The unstated, sometimes unconscious assumption that for purposes of feminism, ‘women’ are white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and otherwise privileged."
  • "Western" essentialism--i.e. assuming that the principles of Western feminism apply in the context of other cultures, or that the experience of Western women generalizes to the rest of the world.
  • The belief "that gender oppression is the most "fundamental" or "primary" oppression; all other forms of oppression are less central, or less universal, or dependent upon gender oppression."
  • The tendency to treat different aspects of a woman's identity as separable from others, as if it is possible to tease out the effects of gender from other axes of identity or oppression (i.e. race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.)
  • The "naturalist" error--that our womanhood or femaleness is defined by our biology. As Bartlett and Harris point out, this assumption excludes the experience of transgender women who are not born with female bodies.

These assumptions can be tempting because when we sit down as feminists to talk about "women's issues," I think there's a tendency to try to isolate what "women's issues" are, aside from the pressures of other categories of identity, privilege, and oppression, and focus narrowly on our identity as women. If we are able to isolate these "women's issues" it might make the discussion simpler--it strikes me as a scientifically-minded thing to try to do, like geneticists trying to find the "bad gene" that's responsible for illness. By focusing on women who are privileged in every other way besides their gender, it might seem possible to isolate the ways in which these women still do not possess privilege as the ways in which women are oppressed as women.

Unfortunately, such assumptions are also extremely problematic; our identities and experiences are not separable in a meaningful way without erasing parts of ourselves. The discussion cannot be that simple. It's impossible for me to talk about my own experience as a woman accurately without talking about my experience as a queer, white, able-bodied, highly educated, Western-cultured woman of a lower middle class background. If I were to generalize my experience of "women's issues" such as eating disorders/body image, male sexual entitlement within relationships, and reproductive rights/health to all women, for example, I'd be overwriting with my own privilege the very different experiences of vast numbers of women. Non-Western women and women living in poverty are more likely to worry about getting enough to eat then about staying slim. Women in relationships with women are not going to experience male entitlement the way women in relationships with men do. Women of color have historically had to fight for the right to reproduce as much as or more than the right not to; women who are infertile, women in relationships with women, and women not born with female bodies (i.e. trans women) all face very different challenges pertaining to reproductive rights and health. And that's certainly not an exhaustive list.

This goes back to what's been emerging as one of the central questions in our course--are there actually problems, needs, or issues that are common to all women, based on our identity as women and regardless of class, race, sexuality, nationality, culture, ability, or biology? And I think it also points to a question that hasn't been raised yet but that is important, which is: if there are few, if any, problems common to all women and women only, what does a feminism that recognizes that look like? Should feminism be dependent on commonality of female experience, shared oppression, and the "sisterhood", or can it be based on something else--like our shared humanity?

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