Essay on Feminism
500 Words Essay On Feminism
Feminism is a social and political movement that advocates for the rights of women on the grounds of equality of sexes. It does not deny the biological differences between the sexes but demands equality in opportunities. It covers everything from social and political to economic arenas. In fact, feminist campaigns have been a crucial part of history in women empowerment. The feminist campaigns of the twentieth century made the right to vote, public property, work and education possible. Thus, an essay on feminism will discuss its importance and impact.
Importance of Feminism
Feminism is not just important for women but for every sex, gender, caste, creed and more. It empowers the people and society as a whole. A very common misconception is that only women can be feminists.
It is absolutely wrong but feminism does not just benefit women. It strives for equality of the sexes, not the superiority of women. Feminism takes the gender roles which have been around for many years and tries to deconstruct them.
This allows people to live freely and empower lives without getting tied down by traditional restrictions. In other words, it benefits women as well as men. For instance, while it advocates that women must be free to earn it also advocates that why should men be the sole breadwinner of the family? It tries to give freedom to all.
Most importantly, it is essential for young people to get involved in the feminist movement. This way, we can achieve faster results. It is no less than a dream to live in a world full of equality.
Thus, we must all look at our own cultures and communities for making this dream a reality. We have not yet reached the result but we are on the journey, so we must continue on this mission to achieve successful results.
Impact of Feminism
Feminism has had a life-changing impact on everyone, especially women. If we look at history, we see that it is what gave women the right to vote. It was no small feat but was achieved successfully by women.
Further, if we look at modern feminism, we see how feminism involves in life-altering campaigns. For instance, campaigns that support the abortion of unwanted pregnancy and reproductive rights allow women to have freedom of choice.
Moreover, feminism constantly questions patriarchy and strives to renounce gender roles. It allows men to be whoever they wish to be without getting judged. It is not taboo for men to cry anymore because they must be allowed to express themselves freely.
Similarly, it also helps the LGBTQ community greatly as it advocates for their right too. Feminism gives a place for everyone and it is best to practice intersectional feminism to understand everyone’s struggle.
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Conclusion of the Essay on Feminism
The key message of feminism must be to highlight the choice in bringing personal meaning to feminism. It is to recognize other’s right for doing the same thing. The sad part is that despite feminism being a strong movement, there are still parts of the world where inequality and exploitation of women take places. Thus, we must all try to practice intersectional feminism.
FAQ of Essay on Feminism
Question 1: What are feminist beliefs?
Answer 1: Feminist beliefs are the desire for equality between the sexes. It is the belief that men and women must have equal rights and opportunities. Thus, it covers everything from social and political to economic equality.
Question 2: What started feminism?
Answer 2: The first wave of feminism occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It emerged out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. This wave aimed to open up new doors for women with a focus on suffrage.
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5 Essays About Feminism
On the surface, the definition of feminism is simple. It’s the belief that women should be politically, socially, and economically equal to men. Over the years, the movement expanded from a focus on voting rights to worker rights, reproductive rights, gender roles, and beyond. Modern feminism is moving to a more inclusive and intersectional place. Here are five essays about feminism that tackle topics like trans activism, progress, and privilege:
“Trickle-Down Feminism” – Sarah Jaffe
Feminists celebrate successful women who have seemingly smashed through the glass ceiling, but the reality is that most women are still under it. Even in fast-growing fields where women dominate (retail sales, food service, etc), women make less money than men. In this essay from Dissent Magazine, author Sarah Jaffe argues that when the fastest-growing fields are low-wage, it isn’t a victory for women. At the same time, it does present an opportunity to change the way we value service work. It isn’t enough to focus only on “equal pay for equal work” as that argument mostly focuses on jobs where someone can negotiate their salary. This essay explores how feminism can’t succeed if only the concerns of the wealthiest, most privileged women are prioritized.
Sarah Jaffe writes about organizing, social movements, and the economy with publications like Dissent, the Nation, Jacobin, and others. She is the former labor editor at Alternet.
“What No One Else Will Tell You About Feminism” – Lindy West
Written in Lindy West’s distinct voice, this essay provides a clear, condensed history of feminism’s different “waves.” The first wave focused on the right to vote, which established women as equal citizens. In the second wave, after WWII, women began taking on issues that couldn’t be legally-challenged, like gender roles. As the third wave began, the scope of feminism began to encompass others besides middle-class white women. Women should be allowed to define their womanhood for themselves. West also points out that “waves” may not even exist since history is a continuum. She concludes the essay by declaring if you believe all people are equal, you are a feminist.
Jezebel reprinted this essay with permission from How To Be A Person, The Stranger’s Guide to College by Lindy West, Dan Savage, Christopher Frizelle, and Bethany Jean Clement. Lindy West is an activist, comedian, and writer who focuses on topics like feminism, pop culture, and fat acceptance.
“Toward a Trans* Feminism” – Jack Halberstam
The history of transactivsm and feminism is messy. This essay begins with the author’s personal experience with gender and terms like trans*, which Halberstam prefers. The asterisk serves to “open the meaning,” allowing people to choose their categorization as they see fit. The main body of the essay focuses on the less-known history of feminists and trans* folks. He references essays from the 1970s and other literature that help paint a more complete picture. In current times, the tension between radical feminism and trans* feminism remains, but changes that are good for trans* women are good for everyone.
This essay was adapted from Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability by Jack Halberstam. Halberstam is the Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of several books.
“Rebecca Solnit: How Change Happens” – Rebecca Solnit
The world is changing. Rebecca Solnit describes this transformation as an assembly of ideas, visions, values, essays, books, protests, and more. It has many layers involving race, class, gender, power, climate, justice, etc, as well as many voices. This has led to more clarity about injustice. Solnit describes watching the transformation and how progress and “wokeness” are part of a historical process. Progress is hard work. Not exclusively about feminism, this essay takes a more intersectional look at how progress as a whole occurs.
“How Change Happens” was adapted from the introduction to Whose Story Is it? Rebecca Solnit is a writer, activist, and historian. She’s the author of over 20 books on art, politics, feminism, and more.
“Bad Feminist” extract – Roxane Gay
People are complicated and imperfect. In this excerpt from her book Bad Feminist: Essays , Roxane Gay explores her contradictions. The opening sentence is, “I am failing as a woman.” She goes on to describe how she wants to be independent, but also to be taken care of. She wants to be strong and in charge, but she also wants to surrender sometimes. For a long time, she denied that she was human and flawed. However, the work it took to deny her humanness is harder than accepting who she is. While Gay might be a “bad feminist,” she is also deeply committed to issues that are important to feminism. This is a must-read essay for any feminists who worry that they aren’t perfect.
Roxane Gay is a professor, speaker, editor, writer, and social commentator. She is the author of Bad Feminist , a New York Times bestseller, Hunger (a memoir), and works of fiction.
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About the author, emmaline soken-huberty.
Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.
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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender
Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.
1.1 Biological determinism
1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.
Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.
A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.
Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).
In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.
Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).
In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).
So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)
2. Gender as socially constructed
One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.
Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]
According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.
Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.
Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.
Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.
Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.
So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.
3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction
3.1 is gender uniform.
The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.
One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).
Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]
For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).
Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).
Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.
This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar  for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)
Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.
Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.
Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).
In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.
These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.
Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.
The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.
For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.
Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.
Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)
Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.
To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.
Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).
More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):
Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.
With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):
Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”
This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.
In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:
If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)
(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).
For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)
For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.
However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).
Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.
Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.
Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).
Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.
Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.
- It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
- One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
- AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
- AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
- AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
- AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.
Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.
Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.
4. Women as a group
The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?
Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.
Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.
4.1 Gender nominalism
Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .
Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).
Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).
Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).
Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).
The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.
4.2 Neo-gender realism
In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:
S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)
These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.
Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.
Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,
any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)
But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola  too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).
Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):
Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).
According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:
The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)
In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.
Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).
Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)
In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.
Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.
Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]
Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.
It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.
Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is
a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)
By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.
Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.
Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:
Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)
The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be
the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)
Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.
Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight
we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)
That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.
Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:
a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)
Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.
Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:
For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)
Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.
As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.
This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.
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Jezebel and the Question of Women’s Anger
By Anna Holmes
Earlier this year, Ben Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and a onetime New York Times columnist, published a book, titled “ Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral .” It explores the creation of, and the competition between, well-funded news-and-culture Web sites—BuzzFeed News and the Huffington Post among them—that began in the early two-thousands, just as the professional blogosphere was getting going. One day after the book’s May 2nd release, the Times published a Smith-authored guest essay , titled “We’re Watching the End of a Digital Media Age. It All Started with Jezebel.”
Jezebel is an influential feminist Web site that I created in 2007. Smith had devoted an entire chapter of “Traffic” to the story of the site’s creation, stumbles, and successes. He was complimentary, calling it “a new kind of cultural politics,” one that built “a community that rejected the old structures of gender and power, and tried to shape new ones.”
One could be forgiven for discerning a slight difference in tone between “Traffic” and the essay that appeared in the Times . Smith’s book took a deep look at the impact of a number of Web sites, but his Times essay seemed to make the argument that Jezebel in particular reflected a “remarkable new openness” and “uncontrollable anger” on the Internet. As he put it, “What makes Jezebel feel so relevant now is that it was among the first places to crystallize the powerful forces that would define social media over the next decade: politics and identity.”
I agreed that Jezebel embodied a “remarkable new openness,” and I was flattered by Smith’s acknowledgment of the site’s continued influence. But some of what he wrote gave me pause. His essay positioned the site as the start of an era that would culminate in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I wanted nothing to do with it. As for “uncontrollable anger”? The phrase felt sexist and paternalistic.
I live in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t immediately aware of the conversation about the essay. People started texting me around 7 A.M. P.S.T. In the darkness of my cozy bedroom, I took a quick glance at the piece on my phone, admired the accompanying photo of me (it was a good photo, and I can be vain), rolled my eyes at a few of the conclusions, and then went back to bed.
About half an hour later, I was awoken again, this time by a phone call from a friend. It appeared that a small backlash to the piece was brewing online—namely, on Twitter. Some readers felt that, by focussing his attention on Jezebel, Smith was blaming women for outrage culture. I read this with interest—after all, women get blamed for a lot of things and aren’t credited enough for other things—but I also didn’t have the energy to respond to it. I placed my phone on my bedside table and pulled the covers back over my head.
I felt ambivalent. The essay had stirred up something from the past that I hadn’t been able to work out: what part, if any, I might have played in the evolution of derisive online discourse. Smith wasn’t purporting to answer this question—some of his language, perhaps deliberately, was a bit vague. But he did make a connection between Jezebel’s often combative commenters and the eventual users of social-media platforms like Twitter, accusing the site of unleashing “searing online mobs.” Jezebel had been created years before the wide-scale adoption of social media, back when people were still going to blogs and then refreshing them to see what new posts had appeared. According to Smith, “The unmediated passions of social media took up where it left off.”
Anger can be explosive. It can ignite social movements and chip away at calcified ideas about sex, gender, class, and race. It’s also fair to say that when women express it—or are accused of expressing it—they’re easily, sometimes viciously, mocked and derided. This is perhaps doubly true for women of color, who have to contend not only with sexist tropes but also with racial stereotypes and fearmongering around anger and tone. (Both my deputy editor at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart, and I are Black. The widely held assumption that the site was staffed only by white women possibly did us some sort of favor.)
But here’s the thing about tone: in many cases, it does matter. And though I was often politically and personally in agreement with our commenters, their over-the-top rhetoric could be alienating to me. I worried that this sort of rhetoric might offend new readers, and that it would be harmful to the new dialogue around gender politics that we were trying to influence and bring into the mainstream. Was there such a thing as “too much” anger? If so, who was I to determine what “too much” is? I felt torn, so I kept these questions mostly to myself.
When Jezebel launched, I was thirty-three, about to turn thirty-four. The events that led to the site’s creation have been written about many times before. So here’s the short version: disillusioned by the state of American women’s media, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create and oversee a women’s-media entity—in this case, a Web site. I imagined it as one with a lot of personality, with humor, with edge. I wanted it to combine wit, smarts, and anger, providing women—many of whom had been taught to believe that “feminism” was a bad word or one to be avoided—with a model of critical thinking around gender and race which felt accessible and entertaining. As one of my colleagues, Moe Tkacik, wrote , in an early post, “Jezebel is a blog for women that will attempt to take all the essentially meaningless but sweet stuff directed our way and give it a little more meaning, while taking [the more] serious stuff and making it more fun, or more personal, or at the very least the subject of our highly sophisticated brand of sex joke. Basically, we wanted to make the sort of women’s magazine we’d want to read.”
Of course, feminist Web sites and blogs were already exploring a new kind of politics among young American women. But, unlike Jezebel, they rarely incorporated robust and sustained pop-culture analysis, and they existed on the periphery of the Internet. (They also didn’t have the funding and other resources that my staff and I enjoyed.) These sites, independently owned, with names like Feministing, Feministe, Racialicious, and AngryBlackBitch, had cultivated devoted readerships, but their audiences were small, and their language was often academic.
Our audience, on the other hand, started off big and quickly got bigger, reaching more than ten million page views a month in the first year. (We had the benefit of being part of a larger blog network, anchored by Gawker , which we would overtake in traffic in less than three years.) I was delighted, if a little taken aback, by our readers’ immediate passion and loyalty. Within two months of the site’s launch, some readers were, unprompted, referring to themselves as “Jezebelles” or “Jezzies” in the comments sections of the site. Familiar screen names and avatars began to appear as regular readers populated the threads, talking with one another and, occasionally, with the site’s writers.
The majority of our commenters were very good. Smart, observant, well-read, vibrant, and dizzyingly funny, they added context and nuance to the stories we published and pressed us to do better. Within a year of Jezebel’s launch, they even attracted the attention of the New York Times , which described them as meeting for drinks and renting vacation houses together. But sometimes they were bad: sarcastic, mean, intellectually dishonest, and bullying toward one another. And sometimes they were horrible, behaving like a twisted Greek chorus trying to upstage the main performers. (Years later, as comments on Web sites began to migrate to social media, I would come to realize that they were the main performers.) “That’s sort of the nature of having a commenting community,” Erin Ryan, an early commenter who became a writer for the site, told me. “People start feeling like they should have a say in what happens there. And really that’s not how a publication works.” At one point, in 2009, I toyed with the idea of handing the site over to the commenters for a day, just to watch them fail.
At times we were accused of “tone-policing” our readers. And it’s true: we did tone-police, especially those commenters who were nasty or uncivil. We would take to the comments threads to warn readers about crossing some sort of line. When they derailed a thread, we’d ask them to move the discussion into the comments of a daily anything-goes post that I pointedly named “Groupthink.” (Most of the commenters didn’t seem to get the joke.) I could have, maybe should have, been tougher on them. My managing editor at the time counselled me to think of Jezebel as a virtual dinner party my writers and I were throwing. “You wouldn’t allow someone to be that rude to other guests or hosts. You’d kick them out,” he said. “Do the same thing in the comments.” But we rarely banned anyone outright. No one wanted to punish readers for being impassioned.
I like to think that, though the moderation was irritating to many commenters, it was also empowering. Readers knew that we were watching and that we cared about what they had to say. Someone once told me that the Jezebel commenters were so devoted, if often critical, because the community was made up of bright, ambitious young women who were underutilized and underappreciated at their day jobs. I thought that this was a fascinating, if depressing, observation.
I wondered, sometimes, whether my concerns about the comments were themselves sexist. Was I holding women to a standard of comportment? Complicating matters further was the fact that I’d started Jezebel and shepherded it to success on the back of my own anger. Though that anger, as I’ve explained, was legitimate and warranted—American women had been sold a bill of goods about who they were and what they wanted, or what they should want—it was starting to define the site, for both readers and casual observers.
I remember one blogger, a woman named Susannah Breslin, who, sometime after the site’s launch, accused its writers of “caterwauling about the patriarchy.” This made us laugh. Breslin’s accusation that writers on Jezebel yelled a lot—er, caterwauled—made sense. We were not without mischievousness (our parent company encouraged a certain amount of snark), but we also leaned into our anger—about sexism, about racism, about the erosion of women’s reproductive rights.
Other critics accused us of intentionally stoking readers’ outrage. In mid-2009, Slate’s women’s Web site, DoubleX, published, as one of its first posts, an article which claimed that Jezebel “is hurting women.” “It’s staffed by bloggers who are expected to produce around 10 high-traffic posts a day,” the feminist scholar Linda Hirshman (who passed away this week) wrote. “It didn’t take the bloggers long to realize that one way to attract a lot of traffic was to offer up outrageous behavior to the clicking public.” She recalled an evening in 2008 when two Jezebel writers got drunk during an onstage interview for the talk show “Thinking and Drinking” and made glib remarks about sexual assault. (These comments were then posted on the Huffington Post for all to see.)
I understood such hesitations—we had a big platform, and we were young and provocative and perhaps not ready for prime time—at the same time that I rejected them. In that instance, the outrageous behavior was not engineered, nor was the traffic welcomed. The entire staff was humiliated, and I was livid about it for months. Less of an embarrassment was Tkacik’s post titled “Ten Days in the Life of a Tampon.” (The headline about sums it up.) We were well aware that this sort of gross-out story might generate page views, but it was written not to attract outsized attention but to engage in a bit of truthtelling—in this case, about how women’s bodies actually work. I didn’t like it when feminists policed other feminists, though it had been happening for generations. And I wanted to think that we knew a little something about how to politicize a generation of young women—not by enforcement of doctrine but by example.
Still, a story about Jezebel was emerging: that we were deliberately provoking our readers. In July, 2010, the writer Emily Gould published a piece titled “Outrage World,” also at DoubleX, in which she accused Jezebel and other feminist blogs of cynically causing “firestorms” in order to boost page views. Gould went on to attack the site for exploiting “women’s worst tendencies” by pushing readers “to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism.”
When I look back at the piece, one thing is obvious to me: some of the firestorms that began on the site accompanied legitimately infuriating reporting. The main example of a provocative post was a June, 2010, story that Irin Carmon, who would go on to do groundbreaking work on sexual harassment and abortion rights, reported about sexism at “The Daily Show.” Carmon spoke to writers, staffers, and a former executive on the show, who painted a picture of a beloved, seemingly progressive media organization that was, in fact, a boys’ club. (In 2017, Jon Stewart admitted, during an interview with Howard Stern, that she was right.)
The other thing I noticed was that Gould, like many of Jezebel’s critics, saw the writers as responsible for the commenters: if Carmon’s post provoked readers, then that was part of some master plan; if the commenters were enraged or cruel, this, too, was engineered by the site’s staff. During my time editing the site, I found these assumptions intensely frustrating. In reality, every day was a negotiation between trying to be fair to our commenters and insuring group civility. (Gould declined to comment for this piece.)
When writing this, I remembered a 2015 Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino called “No Offense.” In it, Tolentino, who at the time was the deputy editor of the site (and now is a New Yorker staff writer ), tries to tackle multiple things at once, including how anger works on the feminist Internet and the ways in which digital media blurs the distinctions between readers and writers, creators and consumers. “There’s a large gap between ‘this is bad’ and ‘you should be offended’ that seems to vanish on the internet, and the harder we try to widen it on this website, the more we are constrained by that lingering expectation: that Jezebel exists, as some have always imagined it to, for the infantilizing purpose of telling women when they should get mad,” she wrote. Later, she added, “In theory, people still expect a feminist site to tell people what to be offended at; but what people seek from a feminist site is that the site itself will cause offense.”
I’m not sure that what people seek from a feminist site is that it will cause offense. I think they look for community. But communities can be difficult—chaotic, contentious, cacophonous. I recently came across a two-hundred-plus-page dissertation , published in 2019, called “Architecture and the Record: Negotiating Feminism in the Jezebel Comments.” It was . . . a lot. The author, Melissa Forbes, accused the site (again!) of choosing to “cater to outraged feminists.” I thought that she wasn’t giving the staffers, or our readers, much credit. But I was intrigued by Forbes’s observation that the comments provided a corrective to the feminism of the site’s writers. When the writers themselves were glib or cruel, she wrote, the commenters offered “a different kind of feminism from that practiced on the top half of the page.” I take issue with the idea that there are “different kinds” of feminism, though there are different “waves” of it. But I do believe that the commenters’ close reading of everything we did was how they forged community. They learned from one another, developed relationships, and discovered their own voices—and that was true even when they were (rightly or wrongly) angry with the editors and writers. As one commenter quoted by Forbes put it, “I have learned a lot from the kinds of articles you publish on this website, and even more from your regular commenters.”
That leaves the question of what, exactly, the Jezebel commenters had to do with the anger that exploded on social media. A few weeks ago, I spoke to the author and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell about his new book, “ Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—and What We Can Do About It ,” which looks at the ways that enmity on the Internet is rewarded by social-media platforms, advertisers, and individuals. I told him about Smith’s piece, and my ambivalence toward it. I explained that, though I detested accusations that we had used anger to manipulate readers, I wondered whether the outrage culture on social media had its roots in comments sections.
Rose-Stockwell was not particularly familiar with Jezebel. (In his defense, he was not part of its target audience.) But he echoed Smith’s assertions, calling the early two-thousands comments sections of Web sites “proto-social media.” Sites like Jezebel, he said, were showing that it was “possible to bring people from passive consumers of news to engaged participants in the editorial process—something that was new for a media site.”
In 2007, when we launched Jezebel, Rose-Stockwell explained, reader remarks could not be easily boosted or reposted. Outrage or offense still occurred within the confines of communities. By 2009, however, social media—what he called “an opinion-serving machine”—was changing everything. That year, he said, “three key features: algorithmic feeds , social metrics , and one-click sharing fundamentally upgraded the speed at which we spread knowledge, propelling us into the modern viral era.”
In his book, Rose-Stockwell points out that virality did not emerge by accident. Social-media technologists prioritize posts using emotional language. These posts, in turn, can start “trigger chains”—in which social-media users are encouraged to react to inflammatory comments and “pick sides on topics about which we would otherwise have few opinions”—and cause “emotional contagion,” in which a person expressing an emotion leads to the “reflexive production of the same emotion by others in the same proximity.”
After I read this, I felt some measure of relief. The stories and topics we wrote about on Jezebel weren’t being “served,” in some premeditated performance or attempt at manipulation. They were organic. They were the point . And we were not abstract algorithms or “conflict entrepreneurs” (another useful phrase from Rose-Stockwell’s book, describing people who create or stoke chaos online in order to boost their own profiles). We were young women with agency and points of view. We were also, I should add, pretty funny. “I think that people didn’t give us credit for having a sense of humor,” Dodai Stewart, the former deputy editor, told me. “I don’t want to discount some of the more serious things, but, from my perspective, our meetings weren’t us sitting around with everyone red in the face, full of outrage and upset. We were having fun, mostly.” Erin Ryan, the former writer and commenter, took this a step further. “I don’t want to rag on anger,” she told me. “I think anger can be great. It’s the basis of a lot of great comedians and writers and opinion writers. I’d say Jezebel was a passionate Web site. But the passion wasn’t necessarily just outrage for the sake of outrage.”
In our conversation, Rose-Stockwell explained that he’s not trying to condemn outrage so much as look at it from a more systemic perspective. Outrage, online or off, allows us to understand the things that are wrong with society, and to work together to begin to fix them. It can unite people, he said, and help society to cohere around certain norms. In this sense, a lot of the outrage on Jezebel was, indeed, productive, contributing to a larger political and cultural project. I think that one can draw a straight line from the feminist Web sites of the early two-thousands to a growing mainstream discourse around gender politics and race and patriarchy, from Beyoncé performing in front of a sign that read “Feminist” at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards to the Women’s March in 2017 and the explosion of #MeToo that same year to the recent juggernaut that is the Barbie movie . (Yes, the Barbie movie. One of my former colleagues jokingly described the film as making her feel “like I was trapped in the Jezebel comments.”)
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Smith and told him that I’d been trying to sort out the discomfort I’d been feeling in the wake of his piece. I explained that I needed him to clarify what he meant when he said that Jezebel was the start of a particular digital-media age. What age was that?
“Social media,” he said. “That’s how I think about it.”
I pressed him. Was he saying that Jezebel influenced the tone on social media, the conversation, or both? Did the site augur something that was brand new, or reflect something that was already in process?
He replied that this was a question he’d struggled with while writing his book. “I feel like when I was writing, the thing that I was always running up against was, Did X cause Y, or are X and Y being carried along in the same stream?” he said.
I also wanted Smith to respond to my frustrations about that phrase “uncontrollable anger,” and the apparent ease with which he, knowingly or not, placed blame for the current political climate on outraged or opinionated women.
He conceded that his phrasing might have been problematic or inartful. “I’m not trying to invalidate women’s anger at all, but it does seem like that was part of the mix, and powerful,” he told me.
“I think that anger was part of it, yes, but I don’t think it was uncontrollable,” I replied. “I’d say it was very controlled, actually, because that was the way women learned they should express it.”
I see Jezebel not as the beginning of the end of the digital-media era but as a moment—a spark—within an ongoing discussion about gender politics. That conversation has led to new realities around sexual assault and harassment, pay inequity, and cultural depictions of women. It also makes some people uncomfortable—in part because it involves women expressing their anger in public and sustained ways. “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, which can act as a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
If that’s part of Jezebel’s legacy, I’ll take it. It’s about everything I could have hoped for. ♦
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Essay on Feminism | 500+ Words Long
Feminism is a powerful movement that has played a significant role in shaping our world. It is a belief in the equal rights, opportunities, and treatment of all genders. In this essay, I will argue for the importance of feminism, a movement that has made significant strides towards gender equality. By exploring its history, examining its goals, and highlighting its impact on society, I aim to convey why feminism is vital for a fair and just world.
The History of Feminism
Feminism has a long and diverse history that dates back to the 19th century. It emerged as a response to the widespread inequality and discrimination faced by women. Early feminists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought for women’s suffrage, paving the way for women to have the right to vote. The history of feminism is marked by countless individuals and movements that have pushed for gender equality and challenged societal norms.
Equality for All Genders
One of the core principles of feminism is the belief in equality for all genders. It acknowledges that discrimination and inequality affect not only women but also people of all gender identities. Feminism seeks to break down traditional gender roles and stereotypes, allowing everyone to pursue their interests and dreams without limitations. It advocates for a society where every person’s worth and potential are recognized, regardless of their gender.
Empowerment and Choice
Feminism empowers individuals to make choices about their lives, bodies, and careers based on their own desires and goals. Moreover, it emphasizes that women and all individuals should have control over their bodies, including decisions about reproductive health. Consequently, by advocating for choice, feminism ensures that people can lead fulfilling lives that align with their values and aspirations
Challenging Gender Stereotypes
Feminism challenges harmful gender stereotypes that limit the potential of individuals. Stereotypes, such as the idea that women are less capable in STEM fields or that men should not express vulnerability, have long hindered progress. Feminism encourages society to break free from these stereotypes, allowing people to pursue their interests and talents regardless of societal expectations.
Addressing Gender-Based Violence
Gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual harassment, is a pressing issue that feminism addresses. It advocates for the safety and well-being of all individuals, working to create a world where no one has to live in fear of violence due to their gender. Feminism has been instrumental in raising awareness about these issues and pushing for legal and social changes to protect survivors.
Intersectionality is a crucial concept within feminism, recognizing that individuals face overlapping forms of discrimination and privilege based on factors such as race, class, sexuality, and more. Feminism strives to be inclusive and intersectional, acknowledging that the fight for gender equality is interconnected with broader struggles for social justice. This approach ensures that feminism is accessible and relevant to people from diverse backgrounds.
Progress and Achievements
Over the years, feminism has achieved significant progress. Women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, and anti-discrimination laws are just a few examples of the victories won through feminist activism. Women have broken barriers in various fields, from science to politics to sports, showcasing the immense potential that can be unlocked when gender equality is pursued.
While feminism has made remarkable progress, challenges still exist. Gender pay gaps, underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, and violence against women continue to be issues that require attention and action. Feminism remains a driving force in addressing these challenges and pushing for a more equitable society.
Conclusion of Essay on Feminism
In conclusion, feminism is a powerful movement that promotes equality, empowerment, and justice for all genders. It has a rich history of challenging discrimination, advocating for equal rights, and empowering individuals to make choices about their lives. Feminism’s impact on society is undeniable, as it has brought about significant progress while continuing to address ongoing challenges. By acknowledging and supporting feminism, we contribute to a world where every person can live free from discrimination and fully realize their potential. Feminism is not just a movement; it is a vision for a more equitable and inclusive future that benefits us all.
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Example Of Essay On Feminism
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: Gender Equality , Bible , Women's Rights , Economics , Feminism , Women , Sociology , Wave
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Feminism is the philosophy of believing that women have equal rights on political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic rights as men. This entails philosophies, doctrines, theories and movements that concern and try to fight the oppression of the women. Women in the past have rose against their oppression of not being given equal rights as to their counterparts, the men. From the time of the cave man, women have been considered to be the inferior sex, being given roles of lesser value compared to the men. Women were considered to be caretakers of families. They were to stay home, care for their husbands, bear children and do home chores. With the rise of industrialization, came waves of women activists fighting for equal rights. These revolutions are divided into three waves (Nicholson, L. J. 1997). The first wave of feminism took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, given birth by the rise of industrialism and urbanization. In the Daily Mail, 22nd January, 2011 article “How feminists tried to destroy the family”, this was the epitome of socialism as we know it, liberalization and the rise of today’s world. This was initiated to open up opportunities for women in socio-economical aspects. This began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in which more than 300 participants both men and women saw the need to empower women through fighting for equal rights as men. The likes of Sojourner Truth lobbied for equality in politics and economical fields giving rise to cult of domesticity (Nicholson, L. J. 1997).
The second wave rose up in the 1960’s to the 1990’s. This wave brought about the civil rights movements and radical issues such as sexuality and reproductive rights. This focused on the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of America ensuring women social equality unbiased on sex. This faces got its roots with protests against the American beauty pageant at Atlanta in 1968 and 1969 claiming that the competition degraded women as objects of beauty. Radical groups arose like the Redstockings who at one time crowned a sheep as Miss America publicly disposing make- up, high heels and other women wear. Having its ideals from neo- Marxism and psycho- analytical theories, it create further critique on capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexuality and roles of women as mothers and wives. As much as the first struggle entailed white women, the second wave integrated the black woman and the lower class strata in the economic spectrum. The class of thought in this wave included several factors. Marriage was already considered just a piece of agreement in a paper. Marriage was taken as oppressive to the women. Having more than one sexual partner was not punishable and birth control was taken as a blessing (Nicholson, L. J. 1997).
The third wave arose in the 1990’s. This was in the era of generation X who had been born in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Star, 11 June, 2012 talks about why women should stand for what they want. This population had grown in the saturation of the media and the verge of socio- economic diversity of the modern world. They were already enjoying the fruits of the first and second wave of feminism such as equality sex rights among others but still tend to criticize the previous waves. Many of the daughters of the second wave had risen to power socially, politically and economically. Views however, contrasted with the other waves (Henry, A. 2004).
Madonna is a famous singer who had her premiere in the past century selling over 300 million records and considered to be one of 25 most powerful women of the 1900’s. This was during the second wave where women had refused to be taken as sex symbols banishing make- up and other beauty enhancers. To the second wave women, Madonna is taken as the betrayer of women. She is taken as the sole object of which women at that time considered male oppression. Her sexual identity, controversial dressing revealing her essence of womanhood is gravely opposing what the women of that time were fighting. Madonna was the sex icon of the past century, performing in hot pants and bras only to mention the least (Hernández, D., & Rehman, B. 2002).
In today’s era, many singers have come up to take the roles of Madonna. Rihanna, Pink and Lady Gaga have been in the forefront of magazines and social media displaying lipstick feminism. These are women with the power and authority to be feminists and at the same time engaging in public displays of sexuality. This is the stretch of feminism that the second wave could not approve of. A woman who can wear lipstick which they were against and at the same time be a feminist. These focuses on giving women a positive look on sexuality, pornography and sexual deviance without considering repercussions simply because it is their lives they are living. Taking control of their sexuality through the way they live is what Madonna expressed every day of her limelight life. The Madonna copy cats however stretch feminism to a whole other level. Lady Gaga is seen as the master mind of the new submission of the male to render women as the superior sex. In New York Times, 24th July 2011; Ladies have a problem, her music videos are displays of her ruling over the men, sitting on them and showing them that they are subordinates. Her appearances in award shows is seen with her wearing heels designed as male genitalia is a clear sign of a start of the fourth feminism wave. This wave focuses on putting the men in their ‘rightful’ place, under the women. This goes overboard as the women purposely expose their bodies configuring themselves as giving audience no room for criticizing them as long as it was out of their own consent. Lady Gaga seems to be lost in her own time as she tries to outdo what Madonna did in the past, the mark she imposed in today’s world (Heywood, L., & Drake, J. 1997).
Heywood, L., & Drake, J. (1997). Third wave agenda: Being feminist, doing feminism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hernández, D., & Rehman, B. (2002). Colonize this!: Young women of color on today's feminism. New York: Seal Press. Henry, A. (2004). Not my mother's sister: Generational conflict and third-wave feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Nicholson, L. J. (1997). The second wave: A reader in feminist theory. New York: Routledge.
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Home / Essay Samples / Social Issues
Essays on Feminism
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Feminism and Its Impact on Woman in the Modern Society
Research question, how has the feminist movement affected today’s society how do feministic ideas are reflected civil society.
One of the major contemporary issues is feminism which was long debated to discover its influence on modern society. Feminism is a spectrum of ideologies, political and social movements aimed at expanding political, economic, personal, and social rights for women or overcoming sexism (Rani, 2020). It is vital to investigate how the feministic ideas are reflected in modern civil society and how it has changed people’s lives.
- Undoubtedly, one of the fundamental changes is the emergence of women’s suffrage and the opportunity to hold high positions in politics and run the state. Women have fought long and hard for these rights. Thanks to the first wave of feminism and the work of suffragettes, women’s suffrage were introduced in New Zealand and the first women deputies were elected in Finland (Rani, 2020).
- Equally important is the opportunity for girls and women to obtain higher education and education in general. If girls were admitted to universities or colleges, it was usually only in boarding schools, where they were trained not as workers and scientists but as good wives and mothers. The first female to enter the university was Julie-Victoire Daubier’s who was admitted to the University of Lyon in France in 1861 (Rani, 2020). The girl became a bachelor and influenced the fact that already in 1866, women received the right to take the highest state exam in all higher educational institutions of the country (Rani, 2020). Thanks to feminism, higher education for women has become a familiar and natural phenomenon.
- An important issue in the patriarchal world was marriage and the role of women in it. Due to the exaggeration of the importance of marriage in the lives of girls, many of them were unable to get a job because of marriage or get married because of their work. Marriage for women was put in the forefront, while work was not important, because females had to take care of the family, and in general, most areas of activity did not seem to be women’s business. But despite all the prejudices, women made their way into politics and the diplomatic service. An example can be Alexandra Kollontai – the world’s first female ambassador. She was a prominent member of the feminist movement and a champion of equality.
Feminism was viewed as a controversial movement since many men started to consider their rights as limited. The critics argued that the changes and legislative reforms have gone too far and that they now have a negative impact on married men who have children. For example, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the rights of fathers are infringed in court hearings on custody issues. Typically, the preference in matters of child custody is most often given to mothers, rather than to fathers. In this regard, organizations, the purpose of which was to fight for the rights of fathers, began to form.
Feminism has had a significant impact on the legislative system and the society in general. Altogether, it was mainly aimed at the empowerment of women. As a result, despite the long struggle, women were able to secure a good level of education, a profession, and a decent salary. Today, ensuring equal rights and equal opportunities is the prerogative of the state itself and international communities.
Rani, S. (2020). Feminism and its impact on woman in the modern society. International Journal of Professional Development, 9 (1), 39-42.
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Stories from the UN Archive: Feminist icon calls out violence against women
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A feminist activist and acclaimed writer from the United States, Gloria Steinem has been on the front lines of social activism for decades and received countless honors, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her service to humanity.
Co-founding the groundbreaking magazine Ms. in 1972, Ms. Steinem and her colleagues brought feminist issues to the forefront.
“For the first time, there are fewer females on Earth than males because of all the forms of violence,” Ms. Steinem said at UN Headquarters in 2016 to draw attention to violence against women.
Ahead of UN Women ’s 16 Days campaign against gender-based violence, take a front row seat for a look at some of Ms. Steinem’s work here , part of the UN News #ThrowbackThursday series showcasing epic moments across the UN’s past. From the infamous and nearly-forgotten to world leaders and global superstars, stay tuned for a taste of the UN Audiovisual Library ’s 49,400 hours of video recordings and 18,000 hours of audio chronicling.
Visit UN Video’s Stories from the UN Archive playlist here and our Podcast Classics series here . Join us next Thursday for another dive into history.
- stories from the un archive
Altman’s polarizing past hints at OpenAI board’s reason for firing him
Before openai, altman was asked to leave by his mentor at the prominent start-up incubator y combinator, part of a pattern of clashes that some attribute to his self-serving approach.
Friday’s shocking ouster of Sam Altman, who negotiated his return as CEO of OpenAI late Tuesday night, was not the first time the shrewd Silicon Valley operator has found himself on the outs.
Four years ago, one of Altman’s mentors, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, flew from the United Kingdom to San Francisco to give his protégé the boot, according to three people familiar with the incident, which has not been previously reported.
Graham had surprised the tech world in 2014 by tapping Altman, then in his 20s, to lead the vaunted Silicon Valley incubator. Five years later, he flew across the Atlantic with concerns that the company’s president put his own interests ahead of the organization — worries that would be echoed by OpenAI’s board.
Though a revered tactician and chooser of promising start-ups, Altman had developed a reputation for favoring personal priorities over official duties and for an absenteeism that rankled his peers and some of the start-ups he was supposed to nurture, said two of the people, as well as an additional person, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private deliberations. The largest of those priorities was his intense focus on growing OpenAI , which he saw as his life’s mission, one person said.
A separate concern, unrelated to his initial firing, was that Altman personally invested in start-ups he discovered through the incubator using a fund he created with his brother Jack — a kind of double-dipping for personal enrichment that was practiced by other founders and later limited by the organization.
“It was the school of loose management that is all about prioritizing what’s in it for me,” said one of the people.
Graham did not respond to a request for comment.
Though Altman’s Friday ouster has been attributed in numerous news media reports to an ideological battle between safety concerns vs. commercial interests, a person familiar with the board’s proceedings said the group’s vote was rooted in worries he was trying to avoid any checks on his power at the company — a trait evidenced by his unwillingness to entertain any board makeup that wasn’t heavily skewed in his favor.
Allegations of self-interest jeopardized the first days of negotiations to broker Altman’s return to OpenAI, which is the leading artificial intelligence company and is responsible for ChatGPT.
Over the weekend, the four members of the original board, including three independent directors, had been willing to bring Altman back as CEO and replace themselves as long as Altman agreed to a group that promised meaningful oversight of his activities, according to the person familiar with the board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Though the board met with and approved of one of Altman’s recommended candidates, Altman was unwilling to talk to anyone he didn’t already know, said the person. By Sunday, it became clear that Altman wanted a board composed of a majority of people who would let him get his way. Another person familiar with Altman’s thinking said he was willing to meet with the board’s shortlist of proposed candidates, except for one person whom he declined on ethical grounds.
Key players in OpenAI’s boardroom saga
But by late Tuesday, Altman agreed to certain demands, including not being on the board and retaining Quora CEO and current director Adam D’Angelo, announcing a return as CEO around 10 p.m. Pacific time . He agreed to name two new board members — Bret Taylor, formerly co-CEO of Salesforce and a Twitter board member, as well as Larry Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary — names the old board members were optimistic about.
“And now, we all get some sleep,” Helen Toner, one of the board members involved in negotiations, wrote on X , formerly Twitter.
OpenAI’s rapidly shifting and drama-filled boardroom saga , which has played out on social media, is a first for the fast-moving tech sector. But Altman’s clashes, over the course of his career, with allies, mentors and even members of a corporate structure he endorsed, are not uncommon in Silicon Valley, amid a culture that anoints wunderkinds, preaches loyalty and scorns outside oversight.
The same qualities have made Altman an unparalleled fundraiser, a consummate negotiator, a powerful leader and an unwanted enemy, winning him champions in former Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Altman’s ability to inspire fealty from employees and faith in his mission was broadcast across X this past weekend in a flood of heart emojis from OpenAI staffers and in threats from nearly all of the company’s 770-person workforce to quit unless he was reinstated.
“Ninety-plus percent of the employees of OpenAI are saying they would be willing to move to Microsoft because they feel Sam’s been mistreated by a rogue board of directors,” said Ron Conway, a prominent venture capitalist who became friendly with Altman shortly after Altman founded Loopt, a location-based social networking start-up, in 2005. “I’ve never seen this kind of loyalty anywhere.”
But Altman’s personal traits — in particular, the perception that he was too opportunistic even for the go-getter culture of Silicon Valley — have at times led him to alienate some of his closest allies, say six people familiar with his time in the tech world.
Many in Silicon Valley laud Altman’s strategic skill sets, including his ability to be a matchmaker among powerful people. People who know him say they have witnessed him pluck fledgling start-up founders, mentor them and make introductions for them that altered their careers. One of those people whose career Altman helped propel was Ilya Sutskever, chief scientist and board member at OpenAI — the person who ultimately fired him.
Keith Rabois, a general partner at the venture firm Founders Fund, said that Altman was one of only three people he consulted when he decided to leave his previous job to join his current firm. He said Altman, who officiated his wedding, had an uncanny knack for giving strategic advice, for negotiating business deals and for spotting undiscovered talent. “He could tell right away who was destined for greatness — probably one of the five best people in all of Silicon Valley at doing that,” he said.
Rabois noted that Altman, as a Stanford dropout, persuaded a major telecommunications company to do business with his start-up Loopt — the same quality, he said, that enabled Altman to persuade Microsoft to invest in OpenAI.
“Insofar as he is polarizing, it’s because he is young, successful and ambitious, and people are envious,” he added.
Altman’s career arc speaks to the culture of Silicon Valley, where cults of personality and personal networks often take the place of stronger management guardrails — from Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX to Elon Musk’s Twitter. Altman’s practice of filling the board with allies to gain control is not just common, it’s start-up gospel from venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Altman’s longtime mentor.
But some of Altman’s former colleagues recount issues that go beyond a founder angling for power. One person who has worked closely with Altman described a pattern of consistent and subtle manipulation that sows division between individuals.
A former OpenAI employee, machine learning researcher Geoffrey Irving, who now works at competitor Google DeepMind, wrote that he was disinclined to support Altman after working for him for two years. “1. He was always nice to me. 2. He lied to me on various occasions 3. He was deceptive, manipulative, and worse to others, including my close friends (again, only nice to me, for reasons),” Irving posted Monday on X.
Irving did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.
The board’s startling, though short-lived, decision to fire Altman came as he appeared to be on an upswing . Only a year after launching ChatGPT, OpenAI was by far the hottest consumer company in Silicon Valley. At the company’s recent Dev Day, Altman presented as a millennial Steve Jobs — and announced plans for the company to become the dominant platform in generative AI . As the face of the company, and the AI boom, he was on the precipice of transitioning to a new entrant in the Big Tech pantheon.
Within some tech and AI circles, however, the knives were out for Altman. A growing group alleges that Altman has used his shrewd maneuvering to stifle smaller open-source competitors, in this case to secure the future for his company and employees.
AI executives, start-up founders and powerful venture capitalists had become aligned in recent months, concerned that Altman’s negotiations with regulators were dangerous to the advancement of the field. Although Microsoft, which owns a 49 percent stake in OpenAI, has long urged regulators to implement guardrails, investors have fixated on Altman, who has captivated legislators and embraced his regular summonses to Capitol Hill.
Though full reasoning for Altman’s initial firing is still unclear, the person familiar with the proceedings said there was no single catalyst. The board’s independent directors remained united during negotiations and stood by their decision. It was hard work to find new board members they believed would be able to stand up to Altman, the person said.
“Sam lives on the edge of what other people will accept,” said one of the people who had worked with him closely. “Sometimes he goes too far.”
In a post on X announcing his return, Altman wrote, “i love openai, and everything i’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together.”