Volume 20, 1998
Philosophy and Gender
Janet C. Wesselius
Gender Identity without Gender Prescriptions
Dealing with Essentialism and Constructionism in Feminist Politics
The feminist philosopher Susan Bordo suggests that the dilemma of twentieth-century feminism is the tension between a gender identity that both mobilizes a liberatory politics on behalf of women and that results in gender prescriptions which excludes many women. This tension seems especially acute in feminist debates about essentialism/deconstructionism. Concentrating on the shared sex of women may run the risk of embracing an essentialism that ignores the differences among women, whereas emphasizing the constructed natures of sex and gender categories seems to threaten the very project of a feminist politics. I will analyze the possibility of dismantling gender prescriptions while retaining a gender identity that can be the beginning for an emancipatory politics. Perhaps feminists need not rely on a reified essentialism that elides the differences of race, class, etc., if we begin with our social practices of classification rather than with a priori generalizations about the nature of women.