[The following guest post was submitted by bloggernacle regular, DKL. Enjoy!]
I am not a woman, not by sex and not by gender construction. Even so, I have a considerable and active interest in women. I am, of course, heterosexual, and I am–thankfully, for the single women of the bloggernacle–married. I also have a mother, two sisters, and four daughters. I have some stake in the avenues of opportunity available to the women who influence my life, not the least of whom are my daughters. I am unequivocally committed to their having every worldly avenue of opportunity open to them. Am I necessarily starting off on the wrong foot with regard to women’s rights if I adhere to some form of gender essentialism?
Gender essentialism is the idea that men and women are inherently different in ways that do not derive from their sex. I believe that most schools of feminism would characterize this more succinctly as the belief that women are different. Academics pedantically refer to this difference as “female otherness”; and they aim to efface the difference as difference.
This pre-occupation with difference is vaguely reminiscent of the comical metaphysician in Bertrand Russell’s Nightmares of Eminent Persons. This fictional metaphysician gets so fed up with negativity that he forswears any word denoting the negative. Instead of saying “I cannot find it,” he says, “It is different from the things that I have found.” Unwittingly anticipating (by several decades) an entire field of academic study, Russell may well have chuckled to think that some later scholar might try to capture this difference from the things we find, and then write the definitive treatise on the “otherness” of lost items. A nightmare, indeed.
In any case, women (much like many ethnicities) have traditionally been subjugated based on their perceived difference, and one very direct way to fight this subjugation is to emphasize that the difference is only perceived (or at least constructed and thus somehow artificial).
This gender essentialism that is the bane of feminists is eagerly sought after by homosexuals. You see, their subjugation has always derived from the perceived moral depravity of their choices. But if homosexuals are essentially different, then they escape the accountability that choice entails.
Surely some element of pragmatism leads feminists to reject and homosexuals to embrace essentialism. It is not, at any rate, obvious at all that there is something essentially discriminatory or essentially liberating about essentialism. We may answer the question that I posed in the first paragraph (Am I necessarily starting off on the wrong foot with regard to women’s rights if I adhere to some form of gender essentialism?), “No.”
That said, as a logical positivist, I’m not big on essences. Frankly, I wouldn’t know a gender essence if it bit me on the ass. And who would? Gender essence is just a peg from which to hang the rhetorical embodiment of patriarchal subjugation (on the one hand) and the morally neutral basis for gender driven behavior (on the other).
Relating this back to Mormonism: “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” famously reads, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Yes, I’ve heard women agonize over this little piece of metaphysics, since it’s supposed to imply some form of gender essentialism. This is a terribly unimaginative reading. All this passage really means is that there are no un-gendered gods, angels, or humans. In other words, in order to have an identity and purpose during pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal life, one must have a gender.
It’s worth noting that the question of whether having a gender is essential is quite different from the question of whether the gender itself has essential characteristics. This should come as quite a relief to Mormon positivists (who take gender essentialism to be sheer nonsense) and Mormon feminists (who anguish over this perceived reinforcement of centuries of subjugation) alike.
This gender essentialism thing isn’t really important. What’s more to the point is that I hope to raise children who reject the view that the gospel as we practice it entails something along the lines of what we often hear expressed as “second-class citizenship.” In my opinion, this requires having a healthy distaste for utter nonsense.
And talk about gender tends to be rather flooded with utter nonsense. Perhaps it’s the prevalent practice of aggrandizing victim-hood, or maybe it’s part of the increasing trend toward emotional exhibitionism (as though the fact that someone’s feelings get hurt somehow means that they–or he–matters). Either way, gender-talk (even in the bloggernacle) seems dominated by people parading their grievances before an audience that is (at times) all too willing to validate them, resulting in women so self-conscious of their gender that the least hint of differentiation is discomfiting or even agonizing. I can’t help but think that focusing on the sort of superfine distinctions purportedly involved in 21st century gender essentialism leads to a less-than-robust sense of self.
This is an exciting time to raise girls. Margaret Thatcher stated that the battle for sexual equality is over, and women won. This, of course, places most schools of feminism squarely behind the times. The Feminist is the new Neanderthal.
My four daughters (angelic beauties all) do qualify for pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose, which is to say, they have been blessed with a gender. And their gender (the female one), whatever its nature and whatever its source, seems at times to be as much a blessing to me as it is to them. I should be ashamed if they learned from me to seek out and obsess over ways that others might make it seem a liability.