Femininity and Essentialism

USian vice presidential candidate and full time misogynist Paul Ryan recently spoke at a GOP event called the Value Voters Summit.

The Family Research Council displayed a pamphlet at the event entitled “Modesty Matters”. It stated, among other things:

“All women, whether married of single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.”

Woman-hating is no surprise coming from Republicans, but this was quite a blatant statement being displayed at a conference where the VP candidate was speaking. This article from RH Reality Check analyzes the code words in the above statement:

Modesty: Hiding yourself and avoiding clothes you find appealing, trying your best to be invisible. Responsiveness: Giving men attention and smiles they demand, no matter how miserable it makes you to do so. Gentleness: Giving up the urge to fight for yourself, instead just giving in and submitting. Women exist, in their eyes, to serve and to be invisible when they can’t be of direct use to men. Reproductive rights and sexual autonomy threaten that view of women, because these things suggest that instead of a servant class, women are people just like men, instead of creatures put on earth to serve men.

Clearly, modeling femininity as prescribed above is about controlling women’s behavior. As Lierre Keith has stated, in most cases the practice of femininity is “a set of behaviors that are in essence ritualized submission.” Nowhere is this made more clear than in this latest Republican offering.

Some postmodernists and genderists have downplayed the harms of femininity. As Julia Serano has said, “The only thing that all feminine traits have in common is that they are typically associated with women in our culture.” Statements like these miss the mark entirely, pretending that the performance of femininity has no historically oppressive context, and ignoring the fact that these traits are associated with women because they have been and are currently used to suppress them.

Most feminine traits are useful to men because they discourage women’s agency, and ascribe value to her only insofar as she pleases them.

Radical feminists know that male supremacists such as the Family Research Council have an agenda of dominating women. But outside of feminism, many people are not familiar with the oppressive nature of the feminine gender role. In fact, it is a common misconception that women are, by nature, more gentle, nurturing, responsive, etc. As many of you know, this position is called essentialism.

In actual fact, it is impossible to determine what characteristics women would exhibit outside of patriarchal socialization, since there is no way to observe that reality. Essentialism takes no account of gender socialization which begins at birth and teaches girls to be quiet princesses, while “boys will be boys” and are encouraged to be aggressive and dominant.

Interestingly, if gentleness, nurturance, and responsiveness were so natural for girls and women, why would socialization require such brutally pervasive influences to make sure girls turn out that way?

Radical feminists wish to free women from this type of feminine socialization. We acknowledge that patriarchy is an oppressive system that molds behavior, and that we cannot gain information about “natural” behavioral tendencies by observing current trends under patriarchy.

About smash
Women's liberationist.

11 Responses to Femininity and Essentialism

  1. treepoet says:

    Much of this level of socialization is unconscious. It consists of gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, etc. As such, it is much harder to overcome than conscious beliefs. It is easier to tell women that they deserve equal pay and have them hear. It is much harder to convince women that some of the things that have become habits that they can’t even see, habits that kept them feeling safe, etc. are a problem. This is an excellent post. Thank you.

    • smash says:

      Thanks, treepoet!

      I’d like to combat the brainwashing system that teaches women to behave in the above-mentioned feminine ways. I know in my case, I’ve been practicing *not* being receptive to men. That is, I won’t talk to them just because they demand it. I will never be able to fully de-program though.

      Just recognizing the problem is a start. As this study states, women in mixed groups speak 75% less often then men do. Talk about feminine socialization at work! (Note- this link is to Jezebel, and the article isn’t that great) http://jezebel.com/5944642/women-speak-75-less-when-theyre-surrounded-by-dudes-and-thats-bad

      • And this is why I don’t talk to dudes. They don’t know shit yet they still try and dominate the conversation. I like ignoring them, it enrages them so. Hee! That Jezebel article, wow.

  2. karmarad says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Smash.

    The quote from Lierre Keith about “ritualized submission” resounds for me. I have been experimenting with not looking down when I pass a man or group of men I don’t have any reason to trust. It’s a big deal, because it actually has a blinding, handicapping effect, especially on a city sidewalk where you’re walking with your head down all the time. It also feels obsequious. I’ve heard it said that men interpret eye-to-eye contact with a woman as a come-on, which one might argue would make downcast eyes part of that “modesty” performance you write about. But that’s not my feeling. It’s that eye-to-eye contact with a strange male is interpreted as hostile behavior by the male. In gang practice, we have all read about men getting killed because a gangbanger didn’t like how they looked at him. Well, this feels like that kind of contact, only I think men would interpret a woman’s direct gaze as much more “disrespectful”.

    The thing is, I can’t force myself to do the experiment all the way. It’s too challenging! There are two parts to it: one is overcoming my own conditioning, the other is dealing with the (unpleasant) results. So what I’m doing is wearing sunglasses. It sounds like nothing – you’d think, of course I can stop lowering my eyes if the guy doesn’t even know I’m doing it. But it’s amazingly hard dealing with this conditioning. Before all this, I didn’t even know that I lower my eyes even with sunglasses on!

    As you and Yisheng 🙂 say, the talking thing is extremely important. I see this all the time and have to decide each time whether to just override the deep voices or let it go as not worth the hostility. I’m an interrupter myself, so have less of a problem with this.

    Just one other comment – about essentialism. You said very concisely, “In actual fact, it is impossible to determine what characteristics women would exhibit outside of patriarchal socialization, since there is no way to observe that reality.” I agree completely. You also say that taking a woman’s gender role as her nature is essentialism. I feel like we could benefit from talking about this more. There are the gender roles, which are deformed and false; there’s the false assumption that even if gender roles were somehow abolished we would still be found to have those deformed gender-role natures (which I think is what you are calling essentialism). There’s also, as you say, the unknown of who we are outside the influence of patriarchy. That’s what I think of as essentialism – saying, we are in essence something currently unknown. So maybe there are two kinds of essentialism, sex essentialism and gender essentialism? I’m having trouble getting a handle on this and would appreciate your thoughts.

    • smash says:

      karmarad, thank you very much for your comment! I’m so glad you stopped by.

      I want to make sure I understand your last paragraph.

      Are you saying it is essentialist to say that women have a fixed nature that is as yet unknown?

  3. karmarad says:

    Thanks for answering, Smash. Yes, I’m saying that. It’s in contrast to the postmodern feminist idea that both men and women are nothing but our gender roles, i.e., our social constructs, that we have no essence. I think “men” are a combination of biology, developmental psychology, and social constructs, with the social constructs fitting pretty well generally as expressions of their biological, “essential” natures. I think women are the same, except that our severely-deformed gender roles mask our “essential” natures rather than expressing them.

    So I think, yes, that we have an “essential” “fixed” nature (and that it’s unknown but knowable after liberation). I believe that’s what you say too. But you do not call it “essentialism”.

    If I understand you right, you are saying that there is a false notion called “gender essentialism”, whereby women’s gender roles supposedly express our real natures. I have seen this phrase before and felt confused by it. If there’s only one “essentialism”, and this essentialism based on gender roles is it, then what is a theory of the existence of a real and hidden biologically-based “essence” of being a female called?

    Or is this definitional confusion easy to resolve with the understanding that there are theories both of gender essentialism as you define it, and sex essentialism, as I define it?

    I’m bringing this up because I’ve been confused about the term for a long while. I thought the reason “essentialism” was pilloried in the feminist community was because, if it concerns real biological predispositions, it requires us to face the probable biological basis of male violence. This is certainly an important issue, but I supported the general idea because I think it is so important to have it acknowledged that women too have biological behavioral predispositions, so we could get to work trying to find out what these are.

    But maybe it has been pilloried because it refers only to the way you use it, as claiming that women’s essence is accurately expressed by their gender roles. This too is an important issue and I think the subject of your article.

    Hope this makes my confusion a little clearer 🙂

    • smash says:

      Thanks for this discussion, karmarad. I think the word “essentialism” can be confusing, so it’s very important to say just what we mean when we use it.

      I’m curious why do you think we have a natural essence. What evidence are you using to support this? How could we learn about our essence when all of our evidence-gathering occurs within a patriarchal context?

      Incidentally, I think it’s similarly impossible to know if there is a biological basis for male violence given the fact that all of our evidence-gathering occurs within the socialization framework we currently have.

      This is an interesting topic. I hope you’ll help me think through this further.

  4. padawanrfboy says:

    A wonderful and salient post Smash, I can always stop by here and learn something and get a good perspective on things!

  5. karmarad says:

    Thanks, Smash, this rapidly turns into a huge subject and I’m more of a questioner than a resolver too at this point. I will try to give you a better response, but for now, here are some ways of expanding on your questions:

    1. Does essentialism for radical feminists mean a) a claim that women’s gender roles represent behavior that women would exhibit if they lived in a society like the one in advanced countries today, but where they had the same social, legal, and personal autonomy as men? What about a society where b) there were no men for some reason, would essentialism mean the claim that current gender roles of women would remain unchanged? Radical feminism rejects such claims strongly, if I understand correctly, and your article is about this rejection, and I agree with it.

    2. If women lived and behaved instead in roles based on relatively free exercise of their needs and desires, would they behave in some respects, as a group, differently from men? Or would they behave in a way that is indistinguishable from men, who of course would also have found their roles somewhat modified by the change in women’s roles? This is what I think of as the “essentialist” issue.

    If they lived completely and freely apart from men, would their behavior spring entirely from the external situation they found themselves in, or would at least part of their behavior spring from something intrinsic to women qua women, not exhibited by men as a group?

    3. How can I claim that women as a group have qualities (which would be expressed in their societal roles in a non-patriarchal society) which differentiate them from men no matter what the external circumstances are?

    Where could we look for evidence of such intrinsic qualities, when there are no non-patriarchal societies to study?

    4. Do men as a group also have behaviors, based on biological differences from women as a group, that would be expressed no matter what the external circumstances were, such as a relatively higher propensity for violence?

    One thing I already see is that essentialism of either sort does have to apply to both sexes or neither. Another thing I’m seeing is that it is very hard to talk about possible “intrinsic” qualities/behaviors of women without comparing and contrasting with those of men.

    Any feedback is appreciated.

  6. karmarad says:

    Hi, Smash, I’m back with thoughts, and I do apologize for the length, quit reading anytime!

    Obviously I don’t have answers, but I have some ideas of avenues of investigation.

    Why do I think women have a natural “essence”? Assuming we do, how can we learn more about it?

    Our traditional gender roles encourage and coerce us us to behave as a subjugated caste (Germaine Greer was one who described our situation this way). My rock-bottom assumption is that women are fully and equally as human as men. Therefore it is not “natural” for us to behave this way. Our “social construction” is inadequate to express our full humanity. Therefore there is a residuum, something irreducible.

    We have as a group a conspicuous biology that is in important respects different from men’s. Surely that is a “natural essence”.

    Our biology, as it compares with other humans, i.e. men, as it compares with females of other species, and in and of itself, is being studied right now. Endocrinology, genetics, embryology, physiology, obstetrics, gynecology have all made important advances.

    How biology affects behavior, its relationship to neurotransmitters, for instance, is being studied. There seems to be a consensus that biology has a profound impact on behavior (though no one denies that we are also “imprinted” with gender identities and roles at an early age).

    Although science itself has been corrupted by sexism, feminist philosophers of science like Sandra Harding have brought to light a lot of that corruption, and at least some of it has been corrected, permitting us to have more confidence in science.

    I know of two credible general frameworks for finding out what our ‘essence” may be.

    1. One is by a man who was no friend to radical feminism in his book “Gendermaps” (1995), but who has been involved with these questions for so long he claims to have invented the phrase “gender role”: John Money, a Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Psychology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He was an expert on intersex people. I don’t agree with some of his opinions, but his science seems pretty solid. He divided the essence/social construct, or nature/nurture balance in humans into a 4-part framework:

    First is “sex irreducible gender coding”, irreducible and non-overlapping differences between the sexes. He says that these, as we all subjectively already know, revolve around procreation: women menstruate, ovulate, gestate, and lactate; men impregnate.

    Second is “sex derivative gender coding”: “From adolescence onward, the irreducible procreative sex differences are under the governance of sex hormones which influence, also, behavior that is gender-coded as ‘sex derivative'”. The two main results are differences in body size and muscularity, and the ability of women to nourish a baby without artificial aid. He places his discussion of testosterone’s impacts on male behavior here.

    Third is “sex adjunctive gender coding’: that is, social behaviors that appear to be based to varying degrees on the previous categories. Here he has to look at the confusion, which now begins to arise, as to which behaviors are an appropriate outgrowth of these natural characteristics, and which are twisted by societies into unnatural gender stereotypes. In other words, he says divisions of labor by sex are generally based on “nature”, but they may also be affected by arbitrary stereotyping, and they may be actually biologically unisex.

    Fourth is “sex adventitious gender coding”, which may bear some distant relation to hormone-related differences, but which overall are striking for their arbitrariness and variability in various societies. Money says that it is here that social constructionists have targeted male and female behaviors: “Their arbitrariness makes them logical targets for the attack of social constructionists, and lends superficial credence to their theory that all gender-coded roles are the product exclusively of arbitrary social constructs”.

    What Money has ventured to provide is a conceptual framework for investigation of the issue of what we are besides a social construction.

    2. A second, not as comprehensive, but general approach comes from social psychology. In the book Social Dominance (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999), the authors develop a theory regarding human group-based social hierarchies, which Pierre van den Burghe called “social stratification”. Their framework consists of three major stratifications found in almost every society: (a) an age system which adults have power over the young, (b) a gender system, in which men have power over the women, and (c) an arbitrary-set system which varies from society to society and may include race, class, sect, regional grouping, and many other distinctions.

    The authors suggest empirically testable implications. They have developed tests to study the “social dominance orientation” of groups, especially men and women, and men as a group score much higher in being oriented toward dominance. The authors suggest that there is a testable connection between the SDO and attitudes and actions of men and women as groups with respect to issues like war, welfare, and crime. They suggest some ways of linking the SDO scores with evolutionary reproductive strategies.

    Putting aside a lot of other huge implications, it seems that one could begin to talk about what women do want in terms of the biggest social issues; and how women, in a non-patriarchal society, would prioritize resources that support life, not war, and a real social net, and other not-so-obvious societal features that would result in a society very different from the patriarchal societies of today. Such a future society would allow women to express themselves in their full humanity for the first time.

    These are frameworks that might lead to testable hypotheses about our “essence”.

    You don’t think male violence is linked to male biology. It seems to me that there are a number of ways to investigate the extent to which male violence is a function of male biology. The science of biocriminology is already doing studies which compare levels of violence with testosterone levels (and other hormones and mediators, testing both men and women). One can compare aging men, who have lower T levels, with young men, account for other factors, and draw conclusions as to whether T is a causative factor; one can do the same with sex offenders and non-sex-offenders; one can compare crime rates of chemically castrated sex offenders on parole with non-chemically castrated sex offenders on parole; one can study trans people to examine changes in both male and female behaviors before and after administration of sex hormones and/or surgical reassignemnt surgery; one can study men born with medical conditions such as androgen deficiency syndrome in which they are genetically male but lack male sex hormones.

    One can similarly compare behavioral changes that might be caused by changes in estrogen levels by comparing women who have had hysterectomies or are post-menopausal with controls, studying female-to-male transexuals, studying females of other species, and so on.
    I don’t count evolutionary psychology out just because I think it has been wildly wrong with some of its theorizing; when I read an article like Barbara Smuts’ on “Aggression: Male Sexual Coercion”, I see a lot of information between the lines, and I even think we might get expert enough to gain valuable information from looking at the different ways women in other cultures communicate, raise children, work, and live out their lives, in spite of the falseness of their positions.

    None of this is easy, of course. It has to be undertaken one step at a time. For now, all I wonder is if we can agree here on a definition of essentialism, and maybe have another look at whether there has been too much emphasis on social constructionism in the past few decades in our theories.

  7. Pingback: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock: A Book Review | Liberation Collective

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