I find it interesting and sad that radical feminism and ecofeminism are so commonly described as essentialist, given that to my knowledge they are the two feminist tendencies with the most explicit critiques of “essences”. Radical feminists challenge the existence of a female “gender essence”, which encodes women’s oppressed condition, and argue instead that women’s situation is created through social structures and women’s own resistance to those structures. And ecofeminists challenges the existence of a special “human essence” that inheres most strongly in white men and is linked to rationality, transcendence and control over the nature realm (understood as the realm not possessing that essence).
Certainly some ecofeminists posit a female essence, and this is where most charges of essentialism are directed. However, most ecofeminists (and those radical feminists dismissed as “cultural feminists” such as Adrienne Rich) are talking about a different kind of thing when they talk about women’s culture and capabilities. Sometimes they are noting that, since men have placed women with nature, we have the opportunity to look for alliances where we stand (in other words, the idea of women being “closer to nature” is referring to where and not what we are). Sometimes they are noting the capabilities which women have, without reference to whether those capabilities flow from our situation, from an essence only we possess, or whether they’re shared with all human beings or all creatures. When people call this latter kind of thought “essentialist”, I wonder if they’re struggling to imagine why anyone might talk about women unless they had no other choice?
What about those feminists (they certainly exist) who advocate for women’s use of essences? As radical feminists have made clear, belief in a female essence is common. In fact, nobody, however rational they consider themselves, is free at all times from any form of “magical thinking”. Without the scare quotes, magical thinking just means a way of thinking which follows rules of cause and effect (or doesn’t!) different to those encoded in the kind of thought which is paradigmatically white, male, minority-world (“western”) and academic. We think magically when we don’t need to derive something from first principles, or when we have so little information, space or time that we can’t afford to. We may also do so when we have reason to believe that what we know or even the way we think has been compromised.
Thought about essences is a kind of magical thinking and isn’t only used to reinforce women’s diminished position in patriarchy. Like most things that are done by most women, its patriarchal functions are intertwined with women’s traditions of resistance - as a rule, we build our resistance where we can. It is rarely the only kind of thinking anyone does and, when it is, it may be because they have little other choice. Essence thought can be a way of making it through a situation precisely by avoiding the task of deriving our self-respect from patriarchally influenced first principles every time (this may not even be feasible).
When we do have the scope to make criticisms, however, we’re right to be critical of any idea that a magical essence coheres in the womb and creates a supernatural alliance between cissexual women and nature. We are also right to be suspicious of analyses which inflexibly position all technology, including medical technology, as against nature. Technology, being matter, is part of the same realm as flesh, which is also matter. It’s the use of technology to create alienation - the story of the Force Of Technology And The Progress Of Man - which ecofeminism properly critiques. The story can easily become the technology, but it doesn’t have to. When technology follows this story, it acts to split us from ourselves - unsurprising, as the story is itself one of splitting. When it doesn’t, such as in the case of very successful treatments like hormone replacement therapy for transsexual women, technology is life-giving and life-enhancing, biophilic.
Trans* women have a particular history regarding female essences, positive and negative. For some of us, “born this way (in the wrong body)” - i.e. a female essence which trans* women are born with - has been a powerful discourse which has enabled us to build self-respect and claim respectful treatment from the world around us. For some, the idea of a female essence has been used as a powerful source of our oppression, through the argument that only people born into bodies which fit within the cluster of sexed characteristics commonly labelled “female” possess it - in fact, that it is one of those sexed characteristics.
Even social constructionist understandings of gender haven’t always been helpful for us. Those analyses which describe gender as a thing which is accumulated through life can be a threat to women who rely on “born this way”, without automatically improving our situation at the same time. It’s easy to argue that, if gender accumulates, it only accumulates to those who are “treated as girls/women”, without taking account of how those trans* women who identify ourselves with women (the class consisting of trans* and cis women) have also accumulated experience in and of gender, first and second hand. These arguments also typically underestimate the extent of the “gender correction” which transmisogynist society applies to us, not just through “gender identity” clinics but at every level of our existence.
What I think is currently happening in the online trans* spaces I know is that trans* women have developed an agile and fluid understanding and use of both social constructionist and essentialist frameworks, frequently blending the two. I wonder if at times we’re allowing ourselves the same luxuries most cis women rely on (or know they can fall back to); the idea that we are women “by right”, that there is something fundamental we have a right to which makes us women as opposed to freaks with no right to exist. This can strengthen us whether or not it is “real”. At other times we make use of a concept of “femaleness” which understands it as a token that is not the sex-role stereotype of women and is not a “female” sexed body.
While at times this token is referred to as an essence, as “gender identity”, it is very different to patriarchy’s conception of the female gender essence in terms of what it includes and excludes. I’ve been struggling to figure out what trans* women are doing when we deploy this concept for some time, and what I’ve observed (anecdotally) is that its boundaries seem to expand and contract to encompass those aspects of ourselves which others most heavily attack. I’m starting to wonder if this ambiguity is (implicitly) strategic. The places we are most threatened are defended with the most potent defence we have available, that of “born this way”, and those we are more able to put up for deconstruction are left outside the boundary. This matches the essentialist/non-essentialist activity of cissexual women, except that they are more widely supported when wishing to sequester aspects of their selves away from (radical) feminist critique. I’ve criticised theories of trans*ness which say it is all or only about essences. This isn’t the same as saying they serve no purpose or are the most important subjects of critique. What do my trans* sisters think of how I see what’s going on here with how we use these concepts?
In summary: not all thought about women’s capabilities - even thought which seems to suggest those capabilities are unique - is essentialist, and description of it as such may say more about the person doing the description of it than about what they describe; essentialist thought can be useful or be the “least bad” choice; and not all “essences” are the same and don’t deserve equal criticism. If we find ourselves devoting more time to attacking thought which sees women as strong, capable and wise than we do to deconstructing essences which see Man (sic) as having an inherent right to dominate, we are probably doing more to hurt women than help. This applies especially to trans* women, who have come in for the most criticism for essentialist thought, and yet our use of essences is less common than generally made out, more sophisticated and more feminist-aware, and very often necessary for our survival.
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