Monday, October 4, 2010

Jessica Valenti: Let's Stop Essentializing Gender

Jessica Valenti just wrote a beautiful piece for The Nation on the future of feminism. I agree with Jessica completely that essentializing gender is what brought American feminism to a standstill in which it has been stewing for the past 30 years or so. The second American feminists embraced the idea of some essential, inherent female differences feminism in this country was doomed.

In her article, Valenti discusses just one area where essentialist feminism has hurt women: politics. If there is some mysterious, undefined set of qualities, beliefs and experiences that accompanies the biological fact of being female, then it only makes sense to suggest that any woman is indisputably better off voting for Sarah Palin than for Barack Obama. Which is, in fact, what the religious right in this country has been arguing recently with great success. No matter how anti-woman your policies are, if you are biologically female, you are a feminist and any criticism of you is, consequently, anti-feminist.

There is, of course, a host of other problems caused by gender essentialism. The assumption that women are inherently different from men can be used to promote all kinds of discrimination: in the workplace, at school, at home, etc. As if it weren't enough that we have been bombarded by the mass media marketing of the essential female difference, the so-called third-wave feminists in academia have been teaching female difference to their college audiences as if it were gospel truth.

When I was teaching my course titled "Collective Identities in Contemporary Spanish Literature and Film" at Cornell, I discovered that my students had been brainwashed into believing that women were essentially different from men to the degree where I could barely teach my course. I even had to interrupt our scheduled discussions and dedicate about two weeks of class time to bringing articles by actual scientists who explain that no such differences (except, of course, the obvious physiological ones) have been discovered.

There are many reasons why gender essentialism flourishes in this country. Unless we confront the damage it is causing to the feminist movement, we will never achieve the goals of gender equality.

Here are some excerpts from Valenti's great article, which has already been placed under virulent attack by gender essentialist feminists:
The right once disparaged feminism as man-hating and baby-killing, but now "feminist" is the must-have label for women on the right. Whether or not this rebranding strategy actually succeeds in overcoming the GOP's antiwomen reputation is unclear. After all, Republicans have long supported overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against family and maternity leave, and fought groundbreaking legislation like the Lilly Ledbettter Fair Pay Act. When it comes to wooing women's votes for the GOP, there's a lot of damage control to do. Feminists are understandably horrified—the movement we've fought so hard for is suddenly being appropriated by the very people who are trying to dismantle it. But this co-opting hasn't happened in a vacuum; the mainstream feminist movement's instability and stalled ideology have made stealing it that much easier. The failure of feminists to prop up the next generation of activists, and the focus on gender as the sole requisite for feminism, has led to a crisis of our own making.
If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door—this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights. . .
Feminism isn't simply about being a woman in a position of power. It's battling systemic inequities; it's a social justice movement that believes sexism, racism and classism exist and interconnect, and that they should be consistently challenged. What's most important to remember as we fight back against conservative appropriation is that the battle over who "owns" the movement is not just about feminists; feminism's future affects all American women. And if we let the lie of conservative feminism stand—if real feminists don't lay claim to the movement and outline their vision for the future—all of us will suffer.
You can find the full text of the article here.


NancyP said...

It strikes me that the anti-feminists are the ones practicing gender essentialism. The whole hoohah about Obama v Hillary was overblown, in part by the Republicans. Only a few feminist "pumas"* existed, and most so-called "pumas" were Republican-leaning in the first place, or couldn't bring themselves to back a black person.

There's a difference between feminism as presented by the mainstream media and feminism in real life. The so-called liberal mainstream media likes to proclaim the death of feminism on a regular basis. The New York Times pretends to find trends for women going back to being housewives by observing a few women married to men making over $500,000.00 a year and living on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The media like to trumpet "at last, women are equal" when looking at wages/salaries for young unmarried women vs men - without taking account of the higher percentage of women at every educational level from high school graduate to doctoral/professional level degrees, and without taking into account differing patterns of childbearing in different ethnic groups (effectively making the female group "whiter" relative to the male group).

MPMR said...

This seems like an ideal time to put in a plug for _Delusions of Gender_, which is (so far) a great book I'm reading.

I'm about 80 pages in, and what I love about it is the convincing scientific case it makes against gender essentialism.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, MPMR! The book sounds fascinating. I'm now dying to read it.