Evaluating Feminist Theories of Gender

by Daniel Xu
2133 words



Normativity vs Representation

Description vs Prescription


Normativity versus Representation

            Judith Butler’s gender as performativity is explicitly guided by the normativity problem. Indeed, she opens Gender Trouble (1999) with “‘Women’ as the Subject of Feminism” (p. 3), suggesting that feminism’s construction of the category of woman as a coherent and stable subject implies that there is a ‘correct’ way to be gendered woman, which unwittingly reifies and regulates gender relations (pp. 5-9). Rather, for Butler, gender is the societally validated and accepted social role performed by individuals; a “stylised repetition of acts. […] [T]he appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity […] which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief” (p. 179). Butler thus rejects the normative notions of universality, authenticity, and authority in feminist discourse. Her prescription: subversive bodily acts – parodic repetitions of the ‘original’ that reveal the original to be “nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original” (pp. 41, 174-177). In Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler then partially rescues her theory of gender from the representation problem by denying a self that precedes or exists outside of gender; “the ‘I’ neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within the matrix of gender relations themselves” (p. 7). In this way, woman remains an essential attribute that one can appeal to for unifying collective action; the defining properties being a set of contingent and relational cultural practices.

            Iris Marion Young (1994) starts with the representation problem, that without “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective, there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (p. 714). Moreover, it is “not possible to conceptualise oppression as a systematic, structured and institutional process” without some understanding of woman as a group (p. 718). Nevertheless, to avoid the normativity problem, Young does not turn to essentialism, but to Sartre’s concept of series (see Sartre, 1960, pp. 256-259). A series is a group that is “vast, multifaceted, layered, complex and overlapping” (Young, 1994, p. 728). Membership of a series does not require any essential attributes, but depend on a passive unification “by the objects [that] their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (p. 724). Put simply, members of a series find themselves in similar circumstances by objects that structure some part of their life; e.g. passengers waiting for a train would be members of a series. However, in the words of the Bard, A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Young’s insistence of woman’s group status for political action implicitly recreates the essentialism that she had tried to avoid. Young must on the one hand insist that there are no common features defining woman, yet on the other hand, insist that women’s lives are “orientated around the same or similarly structured objects” (p. 728). How can we understand these ‘same objects’ without some normative and universal framework?

            Sally Haslanger offers a functional theory of gender, motivated to “usefully revise what we mean [by woman] for certain theoretical and political purposes” (2000, p. 34). She argues that conceptual notions of gender are vague and ill-suited to the task at hand (be it theory or praxis). Instead, Haslanger provides an analytic (re-)definition of woman that tries to address both the normativity problem and representation problem. First, woman is defined according to a suitably abstract, culturally contingent, relational property (1 and 2 below), addressing the normativity problem. Second, it applies an ontologically thin defining attribute (3 below), answering the representation problem. Presented formally (p. 42),

S is a woman if, and only if
  1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
  2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
  3. the fact that S satisfies (1) and (2) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (1) and (2) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

            Or, in layman’s terms, a woman is someone systematically oppressed by virtue of their perceived or real bodily features. The bodily features are abstract and mutable, thus avoiding the normativity problem; whilst the shared subordination retains the possibility of collective action, solving the representation problem. This functionally reductive approach may seem intuitive at first, but when taken to its logical conclusion implies that the category of woman would cease to exist if oppression too were brought to an end. Thus, though Haslanger may have formulated a theory of woman adequate for immediate practical use, it comes at the cost of unstable metaphysical foundations.

            More rooted in the ‘real’ world of politics and activism, Denise Riley claims that it is not incompatible to hold an anti-essentialist view of woman, whilst maintaining an essentialist understanding for political purposes, since “the world behaves as if they unambiguously did” (1982, p. 112). Although Riley subscribes to the essentialist view of gender, she considers playing by the ‘rules’ of political institutions that treat woman as a unitary category to be politically expedient. I am reminded here of Gayatri Spivak’s strategic essentialism, a temporary essentialism that creates solidarity and a sense of belonging to mobilise for social action (Ashcroft, 1998, pp.159-160). However, Stone (2004) asserts that “one cannot defend essentialism on strategic grounds without first showing that there is a homogenous set of essentialist assumptions that exerts a coherent influence on women’s social experience” (pp. 143-144). In other words, Riley cannot maintain both, that women’s experience is uniformly structured by social institutions along with essentialist assumptions, whilst also maintaining that women’s social experience is fully diverse. Mari Mikkola (2009) avoids the problem altogether and argues that feminists “need not define woman in order to mark off the relevant social kind for feminist politics” (p. 561). Mikkola contends that any revisionary analysis of woman is an “unhelpful and unnecessary” perpetual worry (pp. 581). Rather, public intuition is sufficient to demarcate what constitutes woman for feminist politics, and indeed, feminist philosophers should adapt their conceptions of gender to “ordinary language users” and “everyday thinking” (p. 575).