Deconstructing women

// 6 September 2012

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This is a guest post by Nicola Stott. Nicola is studying for a PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies, York University. Her focus is upon women’s friendships and radical feminism. Her background is in social work.

felt female symbol.jpgDeconstructing women – it sounds painful, and in my opinion it very well might be. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists argue that the category of “woman” is entirely socially and culturally constructed, and as such wish to “deconstruct” the category. In denying any essential sense of self or identity they are consequently no longer concerned with speaking of “women” as a group. Similarly the postmodernist theories of feminism seek to explain the oppression of women in terms of gender relations rather than overarching theories of patriarchy. I want to explain why I am worried about the move towards such fluidity and transiency that the term “woman” will soon be entirely redundant.

In the heyday of “women’s liberation”, the term “woman” was flung about with enthusiasm and pride; feminists were busy reclaiming our solidarity and our sisterhood. With hindsight it was far too narrow in its understanding of women’s experiences. But, I can forgive this. It was new and it was learning on the job. I don’t really buy it was entirely white and middle class but there’s no denying it was not inclusive or diverse enough. Critiques developed and this early feminism was challenged and it responded.

Feminist theory is now more inclusive. We’ve still a long way to go in understanding the diversity of experience that exists across the globe and still many women have no voice and are yet to have their narratives and experiences heard and understood. But we are trying and we are listening.

Feminist theory has progressed even further. We are now in danger of falling off the opposite end of the spectrum. In their postmodernist deconstructing of the category of “woman” some feminist theorists are seeking to do away with the category altogether. I am not advocating a naive essentialism or biological determinism but I do think there is a half-way house. As women we have, although to differing degrees, a shared history and culture, a shared relationship with oppression in its various forms. I think there is strength to be found in uniting within the category of “woman”. It is an important label, it has a history of struggle and it links us to our foremothers. Of course our sense of self is extremely complex and ever evolving; it intersects with a great number of other ideas of self. However, for me being a woman is the defining identity, it cuts across other areas of my life. That does not mean those other areas do not exist – just that being a woman is my primary identity.

I like the category of women and the idea of womanhood. I don’t want to pull it to pieces until there is nothing left. I want to be proud to be a woman. I am happy for it to be a diverse category, and I am really happy for it to be debated and challenged. I accept its limitations. But, let’s not give in yet, let’s not be so “fluid” and so without a conception of “woman” that we can’t find any commonalities at all.

As a feminist I want to find shared experiences between women, I enjoy being with women and I want to live a life which encompasses friendships with other women. I am happy to celebrate difference and diversity. I am keen to debate the concepts but I really want to remain a “woman”.

Photo of a venus/female symbol made out of yellow felt stitched on to a pink and red background by incurable_hippie, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

HerbyAttitude // Posted 6 September 2012 at 12:10 pm

Is anyone proposing de-constructing the category of “men”?

Louise N // Posted 6 September 2012 at 1:44 pm

@HerbyAttitude we need to. So much of rape culture, sexism, transphobia and homophobia is tied up in societies views of manhood and masculinity.

Sal P-A // Posted 6 September 2012 at 1:46 pm

For me this is a concerning notion of modern feminism. In fact, I was challenged only last week (in a pub conversation by male colleagues) as being a ‘lipstick’ feminist for appearing too feminine – despite being previously poked over having arm-pit hair and being no-fun over my distaste for high heeled shoes… “you’re wearing a dress and you have long hair”. My reply was simply to point out “and you are NOT wearing a dress and you have CUT your hair. Your hair would be long if you didn’t cut it to conform to the patriarchy defined standard of ‘man’, you’re the one restricted to the styling of clothes you feel appropriate to not threaten your masculinity… Out of the two of us, you’re the one with the most road to travel here on just being a human being. I’m not under any yolk of ‘how to be’ a woman OR a feminist.”

How about we have human friendships first and foremost enriched by our other experiences of being human beings – like the simple biology of gender (no determinism implied), of culture, of personal philosophy instead of constantly trying to redefine the category of woman and feminist – almost as though we’re trying to defend it(!) – which I fear is ultimately self defeating in serving to reinforce gender divides and keep women on the ‘short-end’ of the wedge?

Rose // Posted 6 September 2012 at 1:49 pm

Difficult subject.

I enjoy being in ‘women only’ meditations, yoga sessions, and dance groups. (Transwomen, off course, welcome – before anybody asks).

But I also grew up considering the word ‘woman’ to be derogatory – as that was how it was used around me.

For me, the best thing about ‘women only’ environments is that we get to define what it is for us to be women, whereas outside of them I feel overwhelmingly like men are defining what women are.

I therefore like the idea of deconstructing the social concept of ‘woman’, in order to give women the freedom to find out about their own womanhood, for themselves.

Ultimately, I do not believe in gender binary so much as a spectrum, and feel that everybody needs more freedom and honesty in understanding their individual ‘gender identity’.

I would like to see meeting up with a bunch of women as similar to meeting up with a group of Greens – a broad identity group that have some commonality on which to build community and support.

Lisa // Posted 6 September 2012 at 2:36 pm

I agree, Nicola! My take on it is that as long as it’s possible to imagine what might be meant by the phrase, “Treated like a woman”, it’s going to be meaningful to use the word “women” to talk about ourselves. And perhaps once all that’s out of the way (should be all done with any millennium soon) we’re still gonna need the word for reasons of sexed bodies and sex dysphoria.

I’m not so sure about “primary identity” – I think that’s more often a luxury for people who aren’t also consciously aware of being “treated like” something else. I’d say more like “middle-class white woman” (speaking of myself), being careful to situate myself in several ways wrt. privilege. Because I am being “treated like a middle-class white woman”, not just treated like a woman, it’s just that two of those ways are of being treated are with privilege and one not.

@Rose, please, it’s “trans women”, not “transwomen”.

Nicola // Posted 6 September 2012 at 2:57 pm

Thanks for all the comments. It’s really interesting.

My worry is really that we have a strength in our commonalities, in our identity as women. Of course we should all be free to explore our genders and womanhood but keep in mind our unity also. If we deny ‘women’ and go along with the current ideas of postmodernist thought we will lose our focus on the oppressive forces of patriarchy.

Kim Redgrave // Posted 6 September 2012 at 3:03 pm

This blog post makes me think of a book I just ordered by the philosopher Charlotte Witt on the Metaphysics of Gender. I haven’t read the book yet but there is an excellent review of it here: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/30682-the-metaphysics-of-gender/ which explains the argument and points out a few criticisms. She’s basically arguing for a sort of gender essentialism to help us to understand how the social individual is gendered and how this is the unifying social role of all of the social roles.

But I agree, it is not just about social norms and how other people see us. I identify as a woman first and foremost because I don’t really know what class means anymore (am I lower middle or upper working?) and I’m not part of a minority ethnic group. Even those who are non-white will may find that they have more in common with women from other ethnic groups than with men from their own ethnic group. Though of course their are different norms and expectations attached to white working class women, muslim women, etc. I find I am usually judged as a woman firstly and I want to help to change how women are judged and perceived. That does not entail deconstructing ‘woman’ until it means nothing.

Rose // Posted 6 September 2012 at 3:32 pm

@Lisa, sorry, I’m not quite sure on whats preferred.

Wiki says, “A trans woman (sometimes trans-woman or transwoman)…”, and I see all three in use.

If trans woman is the preferred – then I’ll try to remember to stick to that in future!

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 6 September 2012 at 7:42 pm

The academic ‘deconstruction’ of the category ‘women’ is nothing new and has been present, mainly in academic circles, for more than 20 years now. Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was published in 1992 and it is just a recognizable landmark drawing on ideas that had been in circulation long before, arguably it all started in practice and not in theory, precisely when white middle-class heterosexual feminists were criticised for their manifold exclusions.

Since then, both theorists and activists have been negotiating the category, the ways of talking about ‘women’ and, most importantly, the ways of building coalitions across the board. Nobody is trying today to aggressively proselytize about the complete abandoning of the category of “women”, not in the mainstream discourse at least (sorry but philosophy classes dealing with the schools of thought which do away with the category of ‘self’ altogether are a different story).

I feel that academic “postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists” are still far too often set up as straw women, to be defeated by ‘women’ wanting to fight for the rights of ‘women’… Alas, in 2012 things are quite complicated and the best we can do is to allow the cross-pollination of ideas old and new in the ever changing social and cultural context.

The recent heated debates around trans women and women-only spaces are a great example of how crucial it is to take on board changes coming not only from ‘theory’ but also from years of trans activism.

Laura // Posted 7 September 2012 at 8:50 am

Hi Rose, “trans” is an adjective, like “white” or “disabled”, hence the space before “woman”.

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