essentialism · Feminist theory · social constructionism · socialist feminism · Uncategorized

Help Mum! I Think I’m an Essentialist

It’s funny. The more I think about feminist philosophy, in the practical sense of what I want it to do and require it to explain, the more I find myself a bit of an outlier.

When I was an undergraduate the worst criticism you could level at any theory of sex-based oppression was essentialism—such that even fundamental ideas like the sex/gender distinction, or the difference between the reproductive, chromosomal and secondary sex characteristics that divide humans into male and female and the partly arbitrary characteristics, roles and social organisation of these two categories (masculine and feminine)—have been elided. There were obviously some reasonable explanations for this nature-phobia; the crude biologism of the 19th century which irrevocably wedded women to their oppression by transforming the symptoms of subordination into virtues and, ultimately, shackles must be done away with. But the older I get and the more I think the more I am beginning to suspect the worst: that I am actually an essentialist, either on ontological or biological grounds (perhaps both) and what a terrifying discovery that might be.

I remember the knots my fellow students tied themselves in trying to exonerate Luce Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference from criticisms of essentialism. (I was briefly one of them) Not to mention superstars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who coined the term ‘strategic essentialism’ as a kind of tacit response to the impossibility of political change without subjects. But despite my uneasiness I persisted in my attempts to flush it out. Essentialism seemed a wholly bad thing, one that placed a natural limit on the project of social transformation I was so committed to. Our assumptions back then were that essence, or any account of human nature, was inherently conservative and deterministic. In fact, essentialism and biological determinism for us effectively meant the same thing and it’s possible to see how it might be mobilised (and indeed weaponised) in such a way. I think differently now, I think.

I feel can’t move forward with this criticism without reproaching my foremothers. When I think of Simone de Beauvoir’s book on women’s plight, on the making of ‘woman’ and the conceptual apparatus that she borrowed to explain it, I think it is a hindrance. Not just because we no longer speak fluent existentialist, but because it’s tired, this “existence precedes essence,” it’s become another orthodoxy that we go on believing despite the intransigence of our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and most importantly, the social structures that enslave and enamour us, that fill us with longing and crush us with disappointment. The Second Sex—what is its utility?

I have a problem with radical social constructionism, in its many, many guises. And this puts me offside with feminists from every camp. What Lena Gunnarsson calls feminism’s nature-phobia, or its reluctance to anchor social theory in an explicit account of human needs and capabilities, needs which social structures build upon, accommodate and frustrate is a very real problem for me. Such accounts have been criticised for their partiality, perhaps justly. But the way radical social constructionism (with its affinities to existentialism’s radical freedom) has evacuated any sense of human nature from the subject and the concomitant impoverishment of explanations for human structures and institutions and how these might be transformed or replaced is a problem for those of us who want radical change. Instead of such an account what we have is either a thin, almost flimsy conception of ideology, or psychoanalytic theories which make assumptions antithetical to or at least hard to reconcile with feminism. We need to talk about human needs and capabilities not just to explain how oppressive structures take hold of people, but also for specifying the ways in which they impose absolute constraints on the forms structures take.

Any account of human nature is potentially partial and can and should be contested but this is no reason why we should not tentatively propose such an account. I don’t know how we can explain why people’s choices are so often at variance with what is good for them or why oppressive institutions retain a stranglehold. We can pose a kind of human essence, one perhaps which changes across the lifespan, that transcends barriers of sex, race, nationality, class and so on, but which is malleable too.

I believe I am not alone in this. Aristotle was an essentialist. But perhaps I have more of an affinity to Marx. My own position is something like Chris Byron’s interpretation of Marx, that is, that he is both and essentialist—in regard to human nature—and remains true to his sixth Thesis on Feuerbach that “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individuality. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This reading argues that Marx was an essentialist, but that his essentialism was dialectical, showing that “while society conditions our historical essence, it is our human nature which is alienated”.

I think such a reading can be readily put in the service of feminism. Anna Jónasdóttir’s conception of ‘love power’ (comprising both caring and erotic/ecstatic power) as force comparable, but not reducible to labour power, which can likewise be alienated and exploited is an important intervention. Building on Marx’s notion of ‘human activity’ Jónasdóttir offers men’s exploitation of women’s love power as an explanation for women’s enduring inequality is societies where they are formally equal, educated, members of the workforce and supported by a strong welfare state etc. Such an approach is comparable to Byron’s—only the conditions of women’s essence differ; she is alienated not only from her labour but her love power.

We might go further and argue that human nature is sexed, that women’s biological endowments shape her consciousness, her needs, her capacities. This is the radical social constructionists’ worst nightmare. It makes me nervous. And yet it may or may not be true. If it is to what degree, and might this perversely make us, in a funny inversion of Spivak “strategic social constructionists”? I don’t know the answers to this but I think this needs thinking about, since the alternatives seem to have lead us down a cul-de-sac.


One thought on “Help Mum! I Think I’m an Essentialist

  1. Shared with many thanks for raising this important issue. I hope you continue to develop the thoughts presented here. Thank you very much.


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