Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A critique on essentialism

In today's world, women from all walks of life occupy powerful positions in the corporate world, the media, government, and politics. It is nearly impossible for one to come up with a framework for solidarity among women who are so vastly different. In any given situation, a female white worker at a law firm probably has more in common with her fellow male associates than she does with a lower class woman who works as a clerk at a convenience store. In fact, the only guaranteed similarities between the two women are biological traits, that may or may not be of equal endowment, utility, or appearance. Whether one wants to admit it, we live in a highly stratified class based society, and to envision that a monolithic feminism can encompass such variations is idealistic at best. Within this hierarchy are other differences, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, education and other parts of society that separate us from each other. In order to form a coherent feminist dialogue that runs the gamut of all types of women, one must proceed cautiously when categorizing certain attributes to "all women" as essentialists often do.

One example of the potential detrimental effects of essentialism can be found in the readings in a piece entitled, "Sojourner Truth: Reminiscences by Frances D. Gage, Akron Convention." In this literary passage, the author describes in detail the divisive approach women in the suffrage movement took towards equality, and many White suffragists were afraid that support for abolitionists would taint their cause. Well known suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed for the rights of White women at the expense of their African American counterparts, which silenced the voice of African American women. Although feminist discourse today does not overtly separate on the basis of race or class, perhaps the subtle impact of a feminist voice that fails to account for such differences may be more detrimental in the long term.

Another dilemma presented by the readings is the problem of intra-gender differences that may go unrecognized. Authors Carbado and Gulati posit a fictional scenario involving Mary, an African American female in a law firm. When the firm decides to promote several associates to partnership, 4 other black women are promoted, but Mary is left behind. Mary asserts a sexual discrimination/racial discrimination claim that can be explained as a hybrid injury that occurs specifically to Mary as an African American Women. However, on Mary's second claim based on identity discrimination, the court failed to see any possible violation. This situation signals the problem with intra-gender differences-while the court may sympathize with Mary's dual sex/race claim, the same court cannot comprehend the intra-racial dynamics that may set Mary apart. In this particular example, despite her stellar performance as a worker, Mary may have failed to conform with the firm culture by adhering to certain gender and race customs that set her apart from the other contemporary African American, female associates who made partner. Such expressions of identity include Mary's status as a single women (while the other women were married); Mary's decision to refrain from happy hours, and her desire to dress in traditional African garb, all of which there coalesces an identity that set Mary apart from her White colleagues and her African American colleagues. While the firm may appear to promote African American associates, it may have selectively chosen those who relinquished their unique heritage for conformity with the firm.

While I have not figured out how to resolve this problem, I'm not sure if intra-gender issues are specific to feminist essentialism. How one dresses and interacts in the workplace reflects racial, gender and class barriers. One's decision not to attend happy hour, or to wear cultural attire to work is probably not appropriately categorized under gender or race. A white woman striving for partnership who avoids happy hours, or a male attorney who trades a typical suit for an Irish kilt will face the same stigma as any other minority.

Although I don't agree with the intra-gender quandary that arise with essentialism, the general problems highlighted by the authors with respect to essentialism demonstrate the myriad opportunities for underinclusive classification based on this theory. This "intersectionality" problem suggested by the authors allows for those who do not fit a categorization to "fall through an anti-discrimination gap."

In order to rectify this problem, feminists must be able to include in their dialogue for women who are fundamentally different from one another. In this vein, postmodernism may provide a legitimate platform for women to rid themselves of external differences and find within each other a shared, female experience. Unfortunately, postmodernist theory, which eschews traditional binary systems and socially constructed ideas in exchange for a society free of these external half-truths, may prevent women from uniting behind a common ideology, however imperfect these commonalities may also be.

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