Evaluating Feminist Theories of Gender

by Daniel Xu
2133 words



Normativity vs Representation

Description vs Prescription


            Since Simone de Beauvoir, feminist theorists have questioned biological essentialism – the view that “there is a property, or set of properties, which all women share”, which they “must necessarily – essentially – have in order to be a woman” (Stone, 2007, pp. 141, 143). In de Beauvoir’s words, 

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilisation as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. (2011, p. 330)

            However, feminist philosophy has as its normative and political backdrop the issue of female liberation. Therefore, feminist theories of gender are guided by      not only metaphysics and epistemology, but also feminist praxis; explicitly or implicitly, feminist theories of gender are both a description and a prescription.

            The social constructionist view – i.e. that gender is a product of human interpretation shaped by historical and cultural context – was a reaction to the observation that the essentialist understanding of woman justified “women’s confinement to the domestic sphere as natural and necessary”, whilst also “effectively normalis[ing] and privileg[ing] specific forms of femininity” (Stone, 2004, pp. 135, 139). I will refer to this as the normativity problem. For instance, Elizabeth Spellman (1988) identified that feminists had taken the position of white middle-class women as representative of the condition of all women (p. 3). Seeing that gender did not exist independently from race and class, she proposed that “females become not simply women, but particular kinds of women” (pp. 113, 136). She explicitly called for feminist theory to “include more of the experiences of women of different races and classes” (p. 163).

            On the other hand, taken to its post-structuralist conclusion, anti-essentialism denies that there are any commonalities – biological or social – between all women; it denies the very idea of a coherent category of woman (Stone, 2004, p. 141). Proponents saw the result as a “free play of a plurality of differences unhampered by any predetermined gender identity” (Alcoff, 1988, p.418). The problem to feminist politics was that it denied the existence of any shared characteristics between women that could motivate them to act together as a collective (Stone, 2004, pp. 135-136). Moreover, how can one talk about ending the oppression of women whilst simultaneously denying ‘woman’ as a distinct, extant, group (one thinks of the reactionary’s claim “I’m not racist because I don’t see colour”). I refer to this as the representation problem.

            What follows first is a brief and selective exposition of feminist theories of gender and how they navigate between the problems of normativity and representation, followed by a reflection on how theories of gender are/can be evaluated.