Anti-essentialist critique of ecofeminism and some French definitions of woman

Текст: Станимир Стоянов

In this paper I will try to criticize some basic assumptions that essentialist feminst theories make in their definition of women. I will try to question some basic definitions of masculinity and femininity in the whole feminist theory as a philosophical, political and social movement.

League of Women Voters Minnesota

Снимка: League of Women Voters Minnesota

In one of her most popular essays, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines the feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”[1]. But is feminism really about that? And how is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes possible? How can we understand the conception of equality? Does equality mean to provide and establish the same opportunities for men and women? Or it means to find suitable opportunities for each sex depending on its biological, psychological and social needs? In Book V of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle claims that there are two types of justice – the first one he calls distributive and the second one rectificatory. The distributive justice is about distribution of wealth between the people in society or in any existing community. Aristotle doesn’t understand justice as equal distribution of the wealth but the distribution through what he calls “geometric proportion”[2]. That means to distribute the wealth to each member of the community not equally but directly proportional to his or her needs. The rectificatory justice is about correcting the unequal and unfair distribution between people who have already received their wealth. So, I will try to apply the Aristotelian conception of geometric proportion of wealth and distributive justice to the socio-political needs of women and men nowadays.

Ecofeminism claims that historically women have always been associated with nature. By examining the way in which some binary oppositions were defined in history and mythology, ecofeminists say that men have always been associated with humanity and progress while women have always been more nurturing and taking care of nature and home. For ecofeminists Western society was build on the so-called patriarchal dualism. Everything is explained is some binary oppositions through which we define the world to ourselves. It is also very interesting that one part of the oppositions is always related to something more valuable and better and the other one is neglected. For example men have always been considered to be more rational, more reasonable, more constructive – which is always defined in a positive way. Women are more emotional, irrational and caring, they must stay at home and cook, take care of the children and do the housework – which is always defined as something less valuable than the men virtues. Men and women are not the only separated opposition. The mind is separated from the body (Cartesian dualism), the Aristotelian distinction between form (morphe) and matter (hyle), Uranus is the primal Greek god who is presenting the sky (that’s why he was often called Father Sky) and Gaia, who is a primal goddess in Greek mythology is presenting Earth. Culture and nature are also involved in that dualist thinking. For ecofeminist nature has always been oppressed and less valued, exactly as women are. The classical patriarchal thinking is not only binary-based but also hierarchical – the most valued creature is God and then it follows that row – Man, Woman, Children, Animals and Nature. For ecofeminists this patriarchal form of separation and organization produces series of effects and establishes sexism, racism and speciesism. For the patriarchal believer culture things don’t exist in equal way. They are not organized side by side and together, they are one above other. And the other is always lower in the hierarchy. That certainly means that we should value men more than women and children.

The woman is also defined as something passive and more intuitive. For example, in astrology the Moon represents the women’s nature – and Moon is more connected to feelings and the inside world of the individual with his or her deep fears. The Sun – which is the representation of male sex, is concerned with Ego and self. Ecofeminists are also against the thesis that ethics should be universalized. For ecofeminists the most important values are reciprocity, nurturing, coopertation, love and care. Karen Warren claims that ethics must be closer to experience and not so abstract. To make ethics means to experience or to be closer to the things, not to make abstract philosophical and universal laws. For Warren there is no objective point of view. Ethics must be subjective and concerned with the need of the individual. There are two types of values and ethics for ecofeminists. The first one is more universal and abstract, here the main values are reason and favor. Karen Warren calls this form of reasoning – male bias. The female bias is more about love, care and nurturing. This is the reason why ecofeminists claim that the exploitation of nature is connected to the exploitation and oppression of women: because the dominant values are the values of men, which spreads more domination and exploitation. However, there are two things I don’t agree with. Firstly, I don’t think that reason and favor are connected to exploitation, because I still believe that if you want to create and invent something, you must use reason. And secondly, I don’t believe that such distinction is very favorable for women. I think that both men and women are reasonable. And stating that men are more connected to reason is claiming that women are very irrational, which is discrediting for women’s nature. The categories of woman and man are more complex. I think that we should be careful before labeling something as female or male. Ecofeminists claim that women are more emotional, which is also something that I don’t agree with. I think the main distinction here must be not between female and male bias but between reason and feelings. For ecofeminists feelings and experience is more important than reason. In my point of view both feelings and reason are important for making ethical judgment because with feeling you can experience empathy and decide what is good and what is bad. But with reason you can universalize your experience and make general laws for the ways you have to deal with different situations in your life. I also think that saying that women are closer to nature is bad for women’s emancipation. Nature has its own intrinsic value but culture has its value, too. And our progress in history has happened because people were trying to explore and define nature – to know how to work with it (and this is culture). Science is trying to deal with nature not by oppressing it, but by exploring it. For me, the essentialisation of gender is repressive in itself. I think that if we want to make male and female more connected to each other and equal in economical and political sense – we should be more concerned with their similarities, not with their differences.

In her book “This Sex Which is Not One”, the French feminist writer, Luce Irigaray, tries to define the difference between men and women by deeply exploring the nature of their body and emotions. For Irigaray we cannot observe things neither only in their biological aspects (chromosomes), nor in the social and cultural stereotypes (the female and male aesthetics). Irigaray claims that the difference between the sexes comes from the body through which they explore and feel the world. Inspired by Merleau-Ponty, she claims that the body gives us our phenomenological limitations of the way in which we perceive the objects outside us. The female body has a different relationship potential than the male body. And there are a lot of examples for that: Irigaray says that there is a big difference if you carry a child inside your body than outside. The mother is more connected to the child because the child has been part of her own physical constitution for a long time. It is different also to make love inside and outside your body. The male body, for Irigaray is more „external“ and more connected to the world outside of it than the female body. The female body is more receptive and it is experiencing the world more from the inside. In an interview for a French media, Irigaray talks about her social experiment with girls and boys about the way they use language. She says that she has asked a group of teenagers and adults to make a sentence using the word “with”. Irigaray claims that most men were using the word to describe their personal belongings – like “I’m writing with my pen”, “I went to see my girlfriend with my car”. Men were always focusing on the things they belong to them. When Irigaray asked girls or women to make sentence with the word “with”, they were saying things like – “I’m going out with my brother”, “I want to live with you”. For the French feminist females were more concerned with their relations with other people. That’s why Irigaray defines the female nature as “that sex which is not one”, because for Irigaray the woman is always plural, it is always connected to something that is outside of her. If the boys was forced to write a sentence using other person – with words like “together” or “both of us” – boys were always emphasizing on their own status in the whole group – me and the group, not me as a part of the group. Those two are completely different ways in which one can experience the word for Irigaray. And for Irigaray everything has its roots in the female and male body. Together with Kristeva and Cixous, they form a movement in French literature and writing that is called “écriture féminine”. “Écriture feminine” means “women’s writing” in French. This is a type of writing that is more connected to the body. Women’s writing is trying to free the body from the linguistic limitations which are oppressing it. That’s why women’s writing is more concerned with plurality, non-fixed narratives, “stream of consciousness’” and narrative models that are less static and more “fluid’ as Irigaray claims. One interesting fact is that those writers and feminist philosophers claim that women are not the only sex that can write that way. James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet are perfect examples, for Cixous, for women’s writing. My question here is – then why should we call that a women’s writing if men are also capable of doing it? And if “Écriture feminine” is connected to the body, and language is a male weapon through which the free female fluidity is structured in totalitarian discourses, then why males also write „like women“? Those questions are interesting for me.

I’ll call those two definitions of woman (the one that ecofeminism gives and the French one) essentialists. And I’ll try to deconstruct them using anti-essentialist gender concepts, because I think that the essentialist gender definitions are oppressive and cannot truly free women’s and men’s identities. In the feminist and queer theory there is this basic dichotomy between “sex” and “gender”. Sex for feminists is something biological, strictly defined by our chromosomes and nature. Gender, on the other side, is the sociological construction of the gender – gender aesthetics, gender behavior in society and the way we act as females or males. Or, as Simon de Beauvoir says “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In “Gender Trouble” Butler says that such dichotomy is illusory and suggests that we can define the body outside of the society, which, for Butler, is simply not true. Every time we think about gender, we think about it in a social way, we cannot naturalize gender by excluding the social context that defines it. Thus, for Butler this dichotomy is useless and there is no such think like gender-sex separation. But does that mean that this is essentialism? No, exactly the opposite. In “Gender Trouble” Butler says that we are not assigned to our biological gender but we simply perform it by the values that we have learnt. For Butler gender is performative. Saying that gender is performative is different than saying that gender is performed. The performation of gender is defined by its dynamic process of becoming. Gender is a series of events and acts which constitute us. For example – men walk like men, dress like men, think like men and even sit like men. All these fragments and separate series of events construct our gender identity. For Butler it is simply wrong to think about them as something that we were born with. From the moment that the baby was born and the doctors say to the mother that it’s a boy or a girl we start acting in some particular way. Our definitions of masculinity and femininity are constructed not inherited from within us. If the baby is born with female sex we are more likely to buy her a doll or pink clothes, or dresses. If the baby is a boy then we are acting in a different way – we’ll buy him blue clothes, encourage his parents to buy him a ball for basketball or football. We will start to define his actions as men’s actions, not women’s. If the baby scrunches his hands into fists – we may say that he is going to be a fighter, or a boxer. If the baby girl does that – we will say that she is going to be a strong woman who is going to fight for her independence. But those two babies don’t think about themselves in that way. We are socializing them in the “right” way in which they must perform as a female or male in the society. We are using the same masculine or feminine norms that were used from our parents and culture for defining ourselves. That simply means that the boy can become a girl if we create him as a girl, using feminine clothes or values to define him. These babies have already been categorized in the pre-existing gender norms. Butler also talks that we suppose that the babies will get involved in a heterosexual relationships some day and will even get marry and have children. For Butler, we are not even creating independently our gender, we have been constructed as gender subjects before being conscious about it. That simply means that being a man and being a woman is not something biological and pre-existing from the society and its gender norms. A subject with so-called female body can become a male in society and can be defined as more masculine in society than a subject with male body. That is because the subject is performing himself in ways which are associated more with masculinity. For me, the anti-essentialist gender definitions give us more freedom for sexes because they are denying the fixed and static gender expression or gender determinism.

Many years before Butler, Virginia Woolf, who is sometimes considered to be an essentialist, defines the struggle and the fight between the sexes as something caused by the limitations of the way our society thinks about masculinity and femininity. Virginia believes that every one of us has both male and female qualities inside himself or herself but in the society we often choose to silence our gender fluidity and act in the way which is right for our biological gender. Woolf thinks that we can truly reach happiness and live in peace if we open ourselves for both male and female parts of our identity. Some may say that Virginia is essentialist because she defines everyone being equally female and male but I’m assuming that this definition is more anti-essentialist because it frees our ways of thinking of our sexual identity as strictly female or male. In her novel “Orlando: A Biography” Virginia’s eponymous hero is born as a man in England but he changes his sex at the age of about 30 and lives for more than 300 years without aging. The novel is inspired by the Virginia’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, who was considered to be bisexual and agender. In “The Waves” Virgnia also has one gender-fluid character – Neville. He represents the unconscious part of our mind (the Freudian “”Id”) and is a homosexual man. Virginia has always been interested in the gender identities which were beyond the simple binary distinction between male and female. For Virginia there is no fixed male or female identity that defines us as human beings.

For me, the main purpose of feminism must be to make men and women happier and more connected to each other, to destroy the old understanding of sexes and make new ones by exploring the similarities between men and women. I personally think that equal economical, political and social opportunities for men are only possible if we don’t strictly define what is masculine and what is feminine and open our minds for more non-binary definitions. Also, if we want equal opportunities for men and women, we must stop fighting against men and start question culture and the ways masculinity and femininity is defined in it.

[1] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists, 2014, Vintage (UK)

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2012, Bartlett, Robert C. and Susan D. Collins. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

*Станимир Стоянов e студент по „Философия“ в СУ „Св.Климент Охридски“, има интереси в областта на съвременната континентална философия, изкуството и сексуалността. Публикацията се осъществява по проект „Развитие и устойчивост на създадения джендър екип към СОМ – Студентската онлайн медиа“, финансиран от Български фонд за жените, осъществяван от Център за развитие на медиите в партньорство с