Feminism, as the instructor of a gender studies course I took as an undergraduate explained, is the belief in women’s social, political, and economic equality. Another definition, by the scholar bell hooks, is “the struggle to end women’s oppression.”
Few people actually favor oppression, so this shouldn’t be a hard sell. But feminism gets more complicated when people follow its its premises to their logical ends. These premises — that gender is a social construction society has used to oppress women — lead inevitably towards eliminating gender, and feminism along with it.
The Gender-Sex Distinction in Feminist Thought
Since Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 treatise, “The Second Sex,” a central tenet of feminist theory has been distinguishing between gender and biological sex. If women’s position in society is a result of brute biological facts, this diminishes the extent to which feminism as a social and political movement can challenge gender roles. If, for example, the discrepancies between men and women in various professions are due to differences either of innate ability or of innate values, then cultural change and social policy will not do much to achieve equal representation.
Therefore, most feminist accounts of gender explain it as a socially constructed phenomena, meaning a product of social practices rather than an innate characteristic. Feminists will typically express this belief by stating that society “assigns” our gender through gendered language, the clothes we wear, the toys we are given to play with, the professions we are encouraged to enter, and so forth.
With your average woman who calls herself a feminist, the explanation of gender typically ends there. “Gender is socially constructed” serves as a general rhetorical tool for feminists to protest any norms that limit them in ways they feel are outdated or arbitrary. But the argument that gender is socially constructed leads towards conclusions that feminists seldom embrace.
If gender as a set of norms and behaviors is socially constructed, then gender itself is the source of women’s oppression. In other words, it is not just that women as a group have been oppressed, but that the very classification of “women” is itself oppressive. If this is the case, the logical end of feminism ought to be not gender equality, but rather doing away with gender entirely, and with it the very concepts of men and women.
Eliminating Gender Eliminates Women
Eliminating gender follows logically from feminist premises for another reason: if “the patriarchy” has constructed the concept of “woman” in societies throughout history and across the globe, then men have constructed and imposed on them the very identity women share as women. In feminist theory, as in Genesis — the ultimate patriarchal origins story — women are ontologically dependent on men.
Several feminist theorists have recognized the end goal of feminism ought to be eliminating gender. Notable among them is Shulamith Firestone, who in her 1970 book “The Dialectic of Sex” argued that “the heart of women’s oppression is in her childbearing and child-rearing roles,” and that therefore (employing classic Marxist terminology) “the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and seizure of the control of reproduction.”
Firestone then arrives at the heart of the matter in calling for eliminating not just gender, but sex differences as well: “the end goal of the feminist revolution must be unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter.”
In a similar vein, Donna Haraway penned an essay in 1984 entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in which she called for technology to emancipate humans from biological sex within the context of transhumanism. The move away from social constructivist critiques of gender and towards deconstructing the physical sexed body is most clearly offered by feminist philosopher Alison Jagger, who offered this alarmingly honest assessment in “Feminist Politics and Human Nature”:
[W]e must remember that the ultimate transformation of human nature at which socialist feminists aim goes beyond the liberal conception of psychological androgyny to a possible transformation of ‘physical’ human capacities, some of which, until now, have been seen as biologically limited to one sex. This transformation might even include the capacities for insemination, for lactation and gestation so that, for instance, one woman could inseminate another, so that men and nonparturitive women could lactate and so that fertilized ova could be transplanted into women’s or even into men’s bodies.
The Problem? Women Usually Like Being Women
It is easy to dismiss these writers as mere radicals who do not reflect the nuance or diversity of feminist thought, but their arguments point towards realities that women and feminism will have to deal with as technology increasingly provides the means to alter human bodies. All three in effect collapse the sex-gender distinction by recognizing that women’s place in society ultimately cannot be separated from their reproductive capacity.
While we often think of the type of transhumanist technology that Firestone, Haraway, and Jagger discuss as belonging to the realm of science fiction, the principle of employing technology to reject the constraints of biological sex has been with us since the advent of artificial birth control. Indeed, the availability and government provision of birth control and abortion is a central political issue for feminism precisely because these things are necessary for women to be truly independent. This dependence on technological suppression of biology will evolve into more drastic alterations of the sexed human body as technology evolves.
However, the idea of eliminating sex and gender presents some practical challenges for feminism. As previously stated, doing away with women as a group would mean that feminism has no one to act on behalf of, as “woman” would be cast aside as an oppressive classification. It would have to devolve into a less specific struggle for more general goals of equality or social justice, rather than be dedicated to gender equality.
But it is also a difficulty because most women who call themselves feminists view their gender as a positive aspect of their identity and do not wish to see it disintegrated, while recognizing their gender is tied to their biological sex. They want to be able to pick and choose when socially constructed gender roles cause social ills, but they are unlikely to want to do away with gender as a whole in favor of androgyny.
Stuck Between Two Competing Desires
Feminism therefore finds itself stuck, unwilling to to bite the bullet and follow through its logical conclusions of doing away with gender and instead fighting for a social class it needs in order to exist, but whose boundaries it cannot even define. Yet feminist scholars and activists continue to use the term “woman” without confronting the task of defining that term. They crusade against “women’s underrepresentation” in STEM, “women’s portrayal in the media,” sexual harassment against “women,” and for various other causes.
If feminism is to regain its favor as a label among women, it ought to abandon the postmodern, neo-Marxian gender theories that nearly everyone finds intuitively implausible, if not incoherent. Feminism ought to recognize that the way we intuitively use the terms “women” and “men” is not evidence of “ideological structures of domination,” but rather that the language we use is based on real concepts that cannot be deconstructed through abusing language.
Furthermore, feminism must acknowledge that men and women have both experienced costs and benefits based on their sex throughout history, and continue to do so today. When feminist theory returns from the realm of academia and aligns itself with the more immediate concerns of women, it can avoid its own elimination.
Note: I have not discussed transgenderism here, as it is a topic that deserves its own considerable attention.