A bit of a long post…

Two weeks ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance outside the good old Library. It’s the end of the term, and talk drifted towards post-undergrad plans. I told this chap my plans to enter an MA program. His (paraphrased) response was

That’s great! You know, I think for women to succeed in academics they have to have a “masculine” mind.

I wasn’t certain how to begin responding to this remark. It wasn’t made in any sort of malice, but is rather the unconscious product of centuries of constructed “essential” gender discourses. Allow me to attempt to outline the character and limitations of that discourse (obviously in a much abbreviated and fairly selective manner). I’ll start with three examples from the early modern period, not because it’s the origin of these arguments, but because I’m most familiar with the work from this time. The following are excerpts from a satirical poem, an anonymous didactic pamphlet, and a medical tract, respectively:

1] From Richard Ames, The folly of love, a new satyr against woman

But whilst in pleasant Dreams intrans’d he lay,

Some spirit came and stole his Rib away,

And of that crooked shapeless thing did frame

The Worlds great Plague and did it Woman name. […]

Nature, tis own’d, did all her skill display,

And made their Bodies of the finest Clay;

She labour’d with the most industrious care,

To make their outsides beautiful and Fair

But that which must to all her Art give place,

Is womans tempting wonderworking face.

2] From The deceyte of woman, to the instruction and ensample of all men yonge and olde

Also the man shall know the ordinance of god, and how that he hath made the woman out of the middes of the man, and not of the head, betokening that she shall not be the master of the man, and also he hath not made her out of a side & set little regard by her but he hath made her of the middes to the helping of man and that man and wife shall live with one accord and one will in the state of wedlock.

3] From The anatomie of the inward parts of woman, very necessary to be knowne to physitians, surgians, and all other that desire to know themselves.

And to know whether the conception be male or female, they bid to mark whether it move more on the right side then the left, for then it is a man. If on the left more than on the right side, then it is a woman: and for that cause also is to be noted the two breasts, the right and the left: if the right be greater and harder then the left, it is a token of a man: if the left, of a woman, and if she have more pain and dolour in the right side, likewise it signifieth the man child, if in the left, a woman.

Each of these excerpts represents slightly different “essential” arguments about women. That is, they attempt to use biology, or the “natural” material beginnings of woman, to explain secondary behavioural characteristics of the female sex. These behavioural characteristics rooted in biology become the basis for assigning woman “natural” social and political roles.

In the first example, woman is made from the “crooked” rib of Adam, suggesting she is both second to Adam and morally flawed. Her outer appearance is (according to Nature) perfect, but conceals the inner flaws rooted in her primary substrate. Woman is constituted then, by a divide: according to God and Nature who made her, the woman is morally weak, but beautiful, and naturally uses her beauty to disguise her moral weakness (and thus lead men into moral error).

The second excerpt provides a similar argument, but more sober in tone (and more rooted in theology). It emphasises, once again, that woman is made second to man, and that the physical material and location from which she is taken – Adam’s rib from the middle of his body – dictates her “natural” social role: she is second to man, and is made to labour physically according to the plans and commands that issue from the rational Adam’s mind.

Both these examples would limit woman from political roles that require rational cognitive thought or moral decisions. In fact, considering woman’s natural duplicity, one might wish to limit social interaction with the public as far as possible, especially when one considers the implications of the third excerpt. This one is, for me, the most disturbing, as it poses as a “scientific” (value free?) medical tract. Recalling the commonplace theological notion (derived from Mat.25:31-46) that those on God’s left are always damned perhaps illuminates the derogatory theological and social assumptions that undergird this theory of gender.

The social assumptions behind essential theories of gender are not always accusatory. Auguste Comte in the 1800s celebrated women for their natural sympathy and moral superiority over men. The theory continues to justify, however, woman’s “natural” position in the domestic sphere: she must use her moral superiority to raise a moral household. [i]

The problem with any essentialist argument, whether in praise or condemnation of any one gender, is that it tends to set up not only “natural” but also “normal” behaviours and roles that are meant to represent an entire gender.[ii] This is perhaps most disturbingly illustrated by E.O. Wilson’s fairly recent theories of genetics. Wilson claims

There is no doubt that the patterns of human social behaviour, including altruistic behaviour, are under genetic control, in the sense that they represent a restricted subset of possible patterns that they represent a restricted subset of possible patterns that are very different from the patterns of termites, chimpanzees and other animal species. […] In the process of natural selection, then, any device that can insert a higher proportion of certain genes into subsequent generations will come to characterise the species. (410)

Wilson’s argument is complex. In some ways, it is merely another essentialist argument that attempts to root the social and moral behaviours of men and women in biology, this time at the genetic level. He does not claim, however, that genetics are invariable. More “successful” social behaviours may be displayed most often, thus becoming the standard (or norm) by which the species is known; however, this does not mean that alternatives to this standard do not exist in nature. [iii]

The problem is that social and political institutions use arguments like Wilson’s to assert all-encompassing standards of, for example, (hetero)normal expressions of desire “natural” to each sex, failing to account for those alternate expressions of desire (which are equally as natural). This is, of course, the problem to which recent feminist scholars like Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler respond. Butler, in Gender Trouble, summarizes the problem:

That institutional heterosexuality both requires and produces the univocity of each of the gendered terms that constitute the limit of gendered possibilities within an oppositional, binary gender system. This conception of gender presupposes not only a causal relation among sex, gender, and desire, but suggests as well that desire reflects or expresses gender and that gender reflects or expresses desire. The metaphysical unity of the three is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender – that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality. Whether as a naturalistic paradigm which establishes a causal continuity among sex, gender, and desire, or as an authentic-expressive paradigm in which some true self is said to be revealed simultaneously or successively in sex, gender, and desire, here, ‘the old dream of symmetry,” as Irigaray has called it, is presupposed, reified, and rationalized. (31)

The point is that this symmetry does not exist. We think, however, that it does, and when personal desires contradict those juridically-instituted standards of normal sexual behaviour and desire, we feel guilt and shame: what Butler and Kristeva refer to as “polluted”:

A polluting person is always in the wrong. He [sic] has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed over some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger for someone. […] The individual body recognises its own departure from the model of institutional heterosexuality and labels these desires “abject”: The ‘abject’ designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered ‘Other’. (181)

To make excrement of the self and throw it away is a painful process. What is most significant to note here, however, is that this pain is self-inflicted.

Butler’s argument may apply specifically to heteronormative views of expressions of sex and desire, however, the internalizing process she describes applies, I think, equally well to all expressions of gender. For example, we can see how early modern and Comtian assertions of “natural” social binaries like male=primary, rational, political/ female=secondary, emotional, domestic, continue to be reproduced in statements like the one my acquaintance made: even though he does not accept the assertion that females ought to be restricted to the domestic sphere, the association between rational and masculine thought continues to linger, and the female who possesses this thought is ever-so-slightly (though perhaps not as condemningly) unfemale.[iv]


[i] Not having a translation of Comte accessible, I am forced to only paraphrase his “positivism”. See http://membres.lycos.fr/clotilde/ for more online (mostly French) texts and more information.

[ii] Essentialist arguments also set up binaries that, even if re-articulated in favour of the female, result in a ceaseless linguistic power struggle between male and female in which one is always dominant to the other.

[iii] Biologist Stephen J. Gould’s response to Wilson’s work is perhaps most helpful in understanding the full implications of Wilson’s theory. Gould writes: “If this is all that Wilson means by genetic control, then we can scarcely disagree […] But Wilson makes much stronger claims. Chapter 27 is not a statement about the range of potential human behaviours […] It is primarily, an extended speculation on the existence of genes for specific and variable traits in human behaviour – including spite, aggression, xenophobia, conformity, homosexuality, and the characteristic behavioural differences between men and women in Western society.” (416)

[iv] To pick up on my observation that gender norms are self-inflicted, I must point out that it is not only males that reproduce these norms. A female academic friend in my lab once told me that “having children was the best experience a woman will ever have” (again loosely paraphrased); the implication of the context was that even if a woman chooses academics over family, she should yet feel as though she is lacking a critical part of what it is to be female. I wonder if this leads us back into Woolf territory, doing “homage to the convention” of “female=motherhood” in same way that nineteenth century female writers like Currer Bell, George Eliot, and George Sand gave homage to the convention of “female=silent and chaste” (594). Women are yet (re)performing discursive gender binaries that masquerade as “essential” gender properties. This point seems too important to leave in an external note, and I hope to develop this at more length in future posts.

Yes, I’m even including a works cited!

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York, Routledge, 2007.

Gould, Stephen J. From Ever Since Darwin. In Darwin. Ed. Philip Appleman. 3rd Ed. New York:Norton, 2001. 415-419.

Wilson, E.O. from Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In Darwin. Ed. Philip Appleman. 3rd Ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 409-414.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. In Selected Works of Virginia Woolf. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2005. 561-634.

(All other excerpts transcribed from EEBO)

5 April 2008


One thought on “A bit of a long post…

  1. That’s just the sort of post I’d expect from a woman. You should try being more masculine, it might give your blog a wider readership. 😉

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