Evaluating Feminist Theories of Gender

by Daniel Xu
2133 words



Normativity vs Representation

Description vs Prescription


Evaluating Feminist Theories of Gender

Daniel Xu

Word Count: 2133


When considering what defines a woman, Feminist theorists have generally subscribed to one of two theories of gender: that of biological essentialism – i.e. that there are (biological) properties that all women must share, and social constructionism – i.e. that woman is a product of interpretation shaped by historical and cultural context. The former theory is often criticised for privileging specific forms of femininity and excluding others – which I call the normativity problem, whereas the latter theory suffers from what I call the representation problem – that there are no commonalities by which women may be united. This essay provides a selective exposition of different feminist theorists, and how they navigate the normativity and representation problems.  
            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.

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). 

Description versus Prescription

           What becomes immediately apparent from my above (albeit selective) exposition of feminist theories of gender is that theories of gender are progressive at their core. Each thinker is ultimately motivated by what they consider would advance the socio-political cause of feminism. Butler, in avoiding the normative notions of universality, authenticity, and authority wants to include a wider range of voices and more participation in feminist discourse. Young aims to make the category of woman more intelligible as a rallying focus for feminist politics. Haslanger explicitly admits that she wants to advance a suitable theory of gender for theoretical and political purposes. Even Riley and Mikkola, who seek to avoid entering the debate on defining gender, do so because they believe such a debate is unfruitful to feminist praxis.

            It is evident therefore that theories of gender are in the first instance prescriptive, but not necessarily descriptive. In other words, a theory of gender could advance some normative way of understanding gender, without necessarily making any metaphysical claims on defining the category of gender. Indeed, many of the above theories of gender possess dubious metaphysical foundations, or overcome their metaphysical complications by performing linguistic somersaults à la Wittgenstein (in my opinion!). Moreover, there seems to be a bizarre asymmetrical relationship between the descriptive and prescriptive components of gender theories, wherein the prescriptive desirability directs the (re-)formulation of the descriptive metaphysics. Put differently, it seems completely coherent to reformulate a metaphysics of gender on the grounds that the voices of women of colour are not adequately included; yet no one would advocate abandoning the voices of women of colour in the interests of a better metaphysical formulation. This appears to contradict the tradition of ancient and modern western philosophy, which seek not to redefine metaphysics based on normative judgements, but rather make normative judgements based on metaphysics (but maybe this is the point!). In the final instance then, theories of gender are (and I argue should) be evaluated on the basis of their prescriptive component, i.e. what are the implications of a given theory for society and politics.

            By way of conclusion, two questions come to mind. The first is whether we can consider gender to still belong within the realm of metaphysics and ontology if theories of gender are not evaluated in terms of their metaphysical acceptability; has gender not become the sole domain of ethics? In other words, do we still consider gender in terms of what is true, or in terms of what is right? The second is why should we not evaluate theories of gender by taking into account both description and prescription; why not assess both the metaphysics and societal-political implications?

            To answer the first question, I ironically have to turn to essentialism – the manner in which a thing is assessed is entailed by its essence, but a thing’s essence is not entailed by its mode of assessment. Butler, Young, Haslanger, Riley, and Mikkola examine the existence and nature of things; by virtue of the very subject of inquiry, theories of gender remain in the realm of metaphysics, despite the fact that they are not evaluated as metaphysical theories but on their socio-political implications. To address the second question, I argue that theories of gender ought to be evaluated on the purpose for which they were written, which in all cases discussed above, is formulating a theory of gender amenable to feminist praxis. So long as the metaphysical component is logically valid (which is different from an exercise of normative evaluation), then we should consider only the societal-political implications of such a theory for the feminist movement.


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Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (1998). Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York and London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1999/1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

De Beauvoir, S. (2011/1949). The Second Sex. New York: Random House.

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Mikkola, M. (2009). Gender Concepts and Intuitions. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 39(4), 559-583.

Riley, D. (1982). Am I That Name: Feminism and the Category of Woman in History. London: Macmillan.

Sartre, J. (1960). Critique of Dialectical Reason. Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles. A. Sheridan-Smith (Trans.). London: New Left Books.

Spelman, E. (1988). Inessential Woman. Boston: Beacon Press.

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Stone, A. (2007). An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Young. I. M. (1994). Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective. Signs, 19(3), 713-738.