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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stanford.edu/ Plato -- Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender


  Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

/First published Mon May 12, 2008; substantive revision Fri Jan 29, 2016/

Feminism is said to be the movement to end women's oppression (hooks
2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to
take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human
female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like
genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’
differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on
social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they
distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a
man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two
interchangeably. More recently this distinction has come under sustained
attack and many view it nowadays with (at least some) suspicion. This
entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender.

  * 1. The sex/gender distinction. <#SexDis>
      o 1.1 Biological determinism <#BioDet>
      o 1.2 Gender terminology <#GenTer>
  * 2. Gender as socially constructed <#GenSocCon>
      o 2.1 Gender socialisation <#GenSoc>
      o 2.2 Gender as feminine and masculine personality <#GenFemMasPer>
      o 2.3 Gender as feminine and masculine sexuality <#GenFemMasSex>
  * 3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction <#ProSexDis>
      o 3.1 Is gender uniform? <#GenUni>
          + 3.1.1 Particularity argument <#ParArg>
          + 3.1.2 Normativity argument <#NorArg>
      o 3.2 Is sex classification solely a matter of biology?
      o 3.3 Are sex and gender distinct? <#SexGenDis>
      o 3.4 Is the sex/gender distinction useful? <#SexDisUse>
  * 4. Women as a group <#WomGro>
      o 4.1 Gender nominalism <#GenNom>
          + 4.1.1 Gendered social series <#YouSocSer>
          + 4.1.2 Resemblance nominalism <#StoResNom>
      o 4.2 New gender realism <#NewGenRea>
          + 4.2.1 Social subordination and gender <#HasSocSub>
          + 4.2.2 Gender uniessentialism <#WitGenUni>
          + 4.2.3 Gender as positionality <#AlcPos>
  * 5. Conclusion <#Con>
  * Bibliography <#Bib>
  * Academic Tools <#Aca>
  * Other Internet Resources <#Oth>
  * Related Entries <#Rel>


    1. The sex/gender distinction.

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist
theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise.
Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful
starting point.

      1.1 Biological determinism

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are
coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many
feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender
distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males
depending on /biological/ features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones
and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending
on /social/ factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The
main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter
biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and
Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural
traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy
(being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish,
stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy
(being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate,
variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These
biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain
behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what
our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically,
they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights
accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was
decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of
Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to
grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have
those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology)
would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To
counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that
behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than
biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed
that one is not born, but rather /becomes/ a woman, and that “social
discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so
profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972
[original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/>). Commonly observed
behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused
by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and
Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and
psychological differences between women and men have biological causes
has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue
that women should not become airline pilots since they will be
hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their
duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in
male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural
differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of
nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought
to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences.
For instance, in 1992, a /Time/ magazine article surveyed then prominent
biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming
that women's thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women's
intuition’ is based on and impair women's ability to perform some
specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne
Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus
callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the
corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result,
generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women
and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in
adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest
that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to
differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like
map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men's corpus
callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural
differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

      1.2 Gender terminology

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological
ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term
‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to
employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was
used solely to refer to masculine and feminine words, like /le/ and /la/
in French (Nicholson 1994, 80; see also Nicholson 1998). However, in
order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the
wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the
terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the
amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by
and large) a person's sex and gender complemented each other, separating
out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to
explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals' sex and gender
simply don't match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to
distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many
differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore,
changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender
system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the
biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human,
social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to
articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the
oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially
imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin's thought was that
although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the
oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and
men should behave. Women are oppressed /as women/ and “by having to /be/
women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought
to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would
ultimately bring an end to women's subordination. Feminism should aim to
create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one's sexual
anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one
makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin's, sex and gender were
thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social
interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the
coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and
“provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender
conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the
‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their
cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This
socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of
femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is,
according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female;
their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and
project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and
masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables
the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male
and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism
suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and
social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying
that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and
men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the
“intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger
1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social
construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major
feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the
entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/femapproach-analy-cont/> for more on
different ways to understand gender.)

    2. Gender as socially constructed

      2.1 Gender socialisation

One way to interpret Beauvoir's claim that one is not born but rather
becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation:
females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine
traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are
thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up.
They are /causally constructed/ (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces
either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into
existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are /qua/
women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For
instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially
cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential
treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the
parents', the peers', and the culture's notions of what is appropriate
to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status,
worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and
masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered
behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women's subordination so
that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to
be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971,
26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more
equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should
aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences
socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely
difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often
unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When
parents have been asked to describe their 24-/hour/ old infants, they
have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as
strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate.
Parents' treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions
whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some
socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender
stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in
pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys.
They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’
behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed
since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are
discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and
tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking
toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more
likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see
Kimmel 2000, 122–126).^[1

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by
what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes
countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children's books
have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for
instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and
followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children's books
has been to portray females in independent roles and males as
non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some
publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their
characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary
creatures (like TV's Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with
gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers'
efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the
characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and
Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral
characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender
stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled
feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought
to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and
are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

      2.2 Gender as feminine and masculine personality

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too
simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990;
Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having
feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as
responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered
personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of
small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent
females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic
development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship
differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely
to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously
prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate
himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid
ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the
daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to
develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender
socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously
developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine
persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian
psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow's approach differs in many ways
from Freud's.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender
stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are
stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others
around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own
interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their
children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and
(somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish
their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot
sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By
contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a
career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These
traits are said to result from men's well-defined ego boundaries that
enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the
expense of others' needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed.
Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women's
oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of
others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the
situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in
parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that
children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without
becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender
stereotypical behaviours.

      2.3 Gender as feminine and masculine sexuality

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of
sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created
by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated
as objects /for/ satisfying men's desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity
is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness:
genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and
submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission
dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon
1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is /constitutively constructed/: in
defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference
to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make
reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised
dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position,
women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are /by
definition/ hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to
sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does
not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation
of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined /in terms of/
sexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a
particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it
is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies.
This is not to say that men are /naturally/ disposed to sexually
objectify women or that women are /naturally/ submissive. Instead, male
and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been
conditioned to find women's subordination sexy and women have been
conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as
erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For
MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male
point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989,
chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what
women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be
submissive. This conditions men's sexuality so that they view women's
submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of
sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon's thought is not
that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather,
socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences
in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not
responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are
socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities.
As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to
‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 2006).
MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to
ending women's subordinate status that stems from their gender.

    3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction

      3.1 Is gender uniform?

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical
perspective on gender: /gender realism/.^[2
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/notes.html#2>] That
is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature,
experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and
the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to,
say, men). /All/ women are thought to differ from /all/ men in this
respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated
in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines
women's gender and what women /as women/ share. All women differ from
all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not
sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon's
view. Being sexually objectified is /constitutive of/ being a woman; a
female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the
particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988,
chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow's view.) A more
thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical
perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has
come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take
into account racial, cultural and class differences between women
(particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of
womanhood (normativity argument).

        3.1.1 Particularity argument

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism
with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly
assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class,
ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example,
race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in
the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and
Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon's view, that sexual objectification is
the common condition that defines women's gender, for failing to take
into account differences in women's backgrounds that shape their
sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during
slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always
sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and
sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be
impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification
cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies
considerably depending on one's race and class.^[3

For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender
realists' mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget
of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of
such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular
cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists
accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural
features that condition /their/ gender as women thus supposing that “the
womanness underneath the Black woman's skin is a white woman's, and deep
down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through
an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman
claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular
view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging
some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance
of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western
feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the
condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedan's (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white
Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and
called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she
failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often
poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their
families. Friedan's suggestion, then, was applicable only to a
particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives).
But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women's lives — a mistake
that was generated by Friedan's failure to take women's racial and class
differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity
and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one
another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different
societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular
kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black
middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European
women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist
philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has /definitively/
shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues
that this isn't so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the
idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common
condition or criterion that defines women's gender; they simply point
out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are
misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that
falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western
feminists' gender to condition women's gender in general, this leaves
open the possibility that women /qua/ women do share something that
defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of
why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for
a discussion of Mikkola's critique of Spelman.)

        3.1.2 Normativity argument

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. She
critiques gender realism with her normativity argument (1999 [original
1990], chapter 1); she also holds that the sex/gender distinction is
unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler's
normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the
metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its
/political/ counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political
mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic,
cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by
some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group
(Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/>). Feminist
identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist
politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category)
where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or
feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butler's normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to
Spelman's particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take
differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the
multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which
the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In
their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining
what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertedly created new socially
constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler's second
claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is,
in their attempt to fix feminism's subject matter, feminists unwittingly
defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way
to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term
‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which
generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and
curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this
line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow's view of
gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that
/these/ are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does
not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that
one is not ‘really’ a member of women's category nor does one properly
qualify for feminist political representation.

Butler's second claim is based on her view that“[i]dentity categories
[like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative,
and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of
those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the
incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their
mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler's view
is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe
some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine
personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes
this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out
(what she calls) ‘identity categories’. She seems to assume that ‘woman’
can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it
will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we
think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler's view
that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve
evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise
of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful
(Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butler's critique, consider her account of
gender performativity. For her, standard feminist accounts take gendered
individuals to have some essential properties /qua/ gendered individuals
or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This
view assumes that women and men, /qua/ women and men, are bearers of
various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure
gendered persons' persistence through time as so gendered. But according
to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential
properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power
structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially
constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler
1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being
heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with
masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is
directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered
individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time
/as/ women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler
1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner
(where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn
follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from
biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit
/in/coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender
‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for
instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think
back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women
are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white,
middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and
police those who do not fit this conception.

These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are
nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to
render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that
heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999,
42). Gender cores are constructed /as if/ they somehow naturally belong
to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that
one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender
dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that
since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually
desire the /opposite/ sex or gender.

Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly
assumed to be expressions of one's gender as a woman. Butler denies this
and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable
identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather,
gender is … instituted … through a /stylized repetition of/ [habitual]
/acts/” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded
clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling
one's hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one
is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather
than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and
‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think
of gender as something they naturally /are/. Gender only comes into
being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does
not /express/ her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others)
/makes/ her gendered a woman.

The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as
“compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification
scheme is a /strong pragmatic construction/: social factors wholly
determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent
accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think
that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their
gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and
real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It
does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that
s/he is /really/ a man who only /appears/ to be a woman. Instead, males
dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show
that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing
certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person's
gender is just as real or true as anyone else's who is a ‘traditionally’
feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278).^[5
Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering
acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim
should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering

For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response
to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists
should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a
becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or
end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43).
That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the
category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics”
(Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account
of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not
only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

      3.2 Is sex classification solely a matter of biology?

Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex
ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural
dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and
that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By
contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not
unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order
to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and
idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be
said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or
gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender
concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies.
Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological
features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by
social practices. In some societies, females' lower social status has
meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had
the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity
in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused
entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise
opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise
opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that
bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number
of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social
causes directly related to expectations about gender, women's diet and
their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples
suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits
not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some
extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then,
shapes our biology.

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of /sex/
is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts
as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with
XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia,
a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary
sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count
as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce
small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of
‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body
size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This
understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from
Ancient Greeks until the late 18^th century, did not consider female and
male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a
‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex
category. Females' genitals were thought to be the same as males' but
simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were
referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former
or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was
not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and
male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex
model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex
model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)

Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn't
straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). She estimates that 1.7% of
population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications
possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics
(Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that
intersexed individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes:
‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess
testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who
have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes
(Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that
these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of
intersexes suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to
think that humans are either female or male.

To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of
the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always
considered herself to be female and was considered so by others.
However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from
competing in women's sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño's
genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to
determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a
female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to
/not/ make her female. Intersexes, like Patiño, illustrate that our
understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately
obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or
scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that
are influenced by social factors.

Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex,
feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and
rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically,
intersexed people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and
males need not always go together and that individuals can have some
mixture of these traits. This suggest to Stone that /sex/ is a cluster
concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that
tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex.
But, one need not satisfy /all/ of those features or some arbitrarily
chosen supposedly /necessary/ sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007,
44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should
take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there
is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersexes (along with
trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many
cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).

More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive
and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to
extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes),
other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily
boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex
should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other
anatomical features.

      3.3 Are sex and gender distinct?

In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender
performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing /biological/ sex from
/social/ gender is unintelligible. For her, both are socially constructed:

    If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this
    construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender;
    indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence
    that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no
    distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)

(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions
between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also:
Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two
different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social
construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack her view, consider the
two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for
Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also
performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the
various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). /Prima
facie/, this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have
independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would
physical bodies. This is not Butler's claim; rather, her position is
that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is
constructed, are themselves constructed /as if/ they provide such
material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender
figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are
established” (Butler 1999, 11).

For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we
understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies
are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories
are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world.
Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves /discursively constructed/:
they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of
what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for
discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment
(calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1).^[6
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/notes.html#6>] When
the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making
a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is
performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/speech-acts/>). In effect, the
doctor's utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in
activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that
being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than
being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than
being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that
physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and
that sex is as socially constructed as gender. She does not deny that
physical bodies exist. But, she takes our understanding of this
existence to be a /product/ of social conditioning: social conditioning
makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by
discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive
acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler's views, see Salih 2002.)

For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again,
this appears to be because of Butler's general suspicion of
classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but
always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who
are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining
why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male),
then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists
should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain
acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what
kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary
speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to
identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist
such construction.

However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we
should make of Butler's claim that sex “was always already gender”
(1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex /is/ gender but
goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex
and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it
would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex /imply/
gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are
physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how
women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes
certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do
much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So,
claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they
imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).

      3.4 Is the sex/gender distinction useful?

Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a
start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic
thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to
reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance)
mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to
justify women's oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The
thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior
to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women
(Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified
with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies,
they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between
mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like
reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of
each distinction is devalued (one's bodily features are usually valued
less that one's mind, rationality is usually valued more than
irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they
are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be
irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for
instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons
and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a
family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they
are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with
procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and
body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.

Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender
distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps
onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this
view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the
ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is
immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is
something we can alter and change through individual choices. However,
since women are said to be more closely associated with biological
features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body
distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto
the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is
associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with
the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body,
reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999,
103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently
repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather
than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions
to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’
rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin
argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool
that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and
reproductive features.

Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given
certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it
is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction
worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological
determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful
work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999,
6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a
woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s
distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or
historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived
experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by
separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with
the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one's theory that
tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).

More recently, Mikkola (2011) has argued that the sex/gender
distinction, which underlies views like Rubin's and MacKinnon's, has
certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render
the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is
socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a
mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and
men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions
on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social
agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are
not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of
oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men
should be feminism's political goal. But this harbours ontologically
undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their
gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to
do away with something that should not be done away with, which is
unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender
justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give
up the distinction on practical political grounds.

    4. Women as a group

The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into
question the viability of the category /women/. Feminism is the movement
to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the
category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments
that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction
between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not
useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in
what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and
jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions,
behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be
able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction
if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not
to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women /qua/
women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation
where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make
political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the
idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist
critiques of the category /women/ are successful, then what (if
anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds
of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?

Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic
for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye
1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar
1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance,
Young holds that accounts like Spelman's reduce the category of women to
a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them
together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of
both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality,
ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is,
wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their
economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse:
for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are
starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman's
position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind
them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to
oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a
category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not
possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured,
institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of
an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective
feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to
conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Frye
1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995; 2011;
Sveinsdóttir 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this
category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist —
positions that deny there is something women /qua/ women share and that
seek to unify women's social kind by appealing to something external to
women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be
something women /qua/ women share (although these realist positions
differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Next we will
review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions.

      4.1 Gender nominalism

        4.1.1 Gendered social series

Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is
the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is
nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the
category /women/ intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a
particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified
passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the
objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other”
(Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas
members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals,
projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue
their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in
common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared
feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she
takes Spelman's particularity argument to have established definitely
that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000).
Instead, women's category is unified by certain practico-inert realities
or the ways in which women's lives and their actions are oriented around
certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example,
bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions
being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and
the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through
women's lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert
objects and realities that position them /as women/.

Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and
realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical
facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies
(menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with
these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance).
Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual
representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces,
clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series
since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and
certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively
and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women”
(Young 1997, 32).

Although Young's proposal purports to be a response to Spelman's
worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to
the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young's view, something women
as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together
(Stone 2004).

        4.1.2 Resemblance nominalism

Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified,
feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282).
Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women /qua/ women do not
share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance
nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation
holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance
nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing
for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others
have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein's ‘family
resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes
2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price's resemblance nominalism
whereby /x/ is a member of some type /F/ only if /x/ resembles some
paradigm or exemplar of /F/ sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For
instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red
paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the
paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is
unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently
resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).

Semantic considerations about the concept /woman/ suggest to Stoljar
that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It
seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single
social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, /woman/ is a
cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different
arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27).
More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a)
Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual
experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets
at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female
clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one's sex or undertaking
care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being
called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of
womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that
feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social,
behavioural, psychological traits) /and/ those termed ‘sex traits’.
Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept /woman/ applies to (at
least some) MTF trans persons, one can be a woman without being female
(Stoljar 1995, 282).

The cluster concept /woman/ does not, however, straightforwardly provide
the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four
clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman
paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First,
/any/ individual who possesses a feature from /at least/ three of the
four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For
instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex
characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on
the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought
up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female
phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics,
will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284).^[7
Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently
closely (on Price's account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each
other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995,
284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that
one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.

      4.2 Neo-gender realism

        4.2.1 Social subordination and gender

In a series of articles collected in her 2012, Sally Haslanger argues
for a way to define the concept /woman/ that is politically useful,
serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows
/woman/ to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically,
Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a
subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger
is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept /woman/ (2000b;
2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that
revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first.
Haslanger's analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to
elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their
legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists
/should/ be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33).^[8
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/notes.html#8>] Now,
feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices
(Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to
identify, explain and talk about persistent /social/ inequalities
between males and females. Haslanger's analysis of gender begins with
the recognition that females and males differ in two respects:
physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to
“privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that
the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social
positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent
sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she
understands genders:

    /S/ /is a woman/ iff [by definition] /S/ is systematically
    subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal,
    social, etc.), and /S/ is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by
    observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a
    female's biological role in reproduction.

    /S/ /is a man/ iff [by definition] /S/ is systematically privileged
    along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and
    /S/ is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or
    imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male's
    biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)

These are /constitutive/ /of/ being a woman and a man: what makes
calling /S/ a woman apt, is that /S/ is oppressed on sex-marked grounds;
what makes calling /S/ a man apt, is that /S/ is privileged on
sex-marked grounds.

Haslanger's ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females
who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least
arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds
and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger's definition. And,
similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This
might suggest that Haslanger's analysis should be rejected in that it
does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender
terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the
definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to
capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has
argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger's,
are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.

Note also that Haslanger's proposal is eliminativist: gender justice
would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social
structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If
sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist
(although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists
endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger
does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a
woman: since Haslanger defines /woman/ in terms of subordination,

    any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition
    be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to
    … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of
    the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)

But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able
to challenge subordination without having to challenge one's status as a
woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and
constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being
subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola [2011] also argues that
Haslanger's eliminativism is undesirable).

Theodore Bach also holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable.
However, in his view Haslanger’s position faces another more serious
problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):

    /Representation problem/: “if there is no real group of ‘women’,
    then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political
    policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234).

    /Commonality problems/: (1) There is no feature that all women
    cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s
    social kind with the help of some essential property privileges
    those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012,

According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems
appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a
suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids
the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically
thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the
representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is
specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women
are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified
together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though
that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we /should/ on
political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of
the genders /men/ and /women/ according to which they are natural kinds
with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women
make up a natural kind with a historical essence:

    The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is
    a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of
    women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual
    must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must
    have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical
    gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)

In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other
women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a
woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the
ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about
gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than
Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

Bach’s view, however, has anti-trans implications. After all, trans
women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as
women on his view. More worryingly, trans women will count as men
contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins
(2015) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher
argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand
womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the
resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend
to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women
within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend
their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face
value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the
meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss
alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans
subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of
the analysis” (2013, 235).

Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins
(2015) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes
some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view,
Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one
satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed
concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”;
another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins
2015, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into
women’s social kind, who on Haslanger's social class approach to gender
would inappropriately have been excluded.

In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that
her ameliorative analysis of /woman/ may not be as revisionary as it
first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing,
ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are
talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies
that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger
2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could
simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of
our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something
utterly different from what we /think/ it means; and we could be
entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger's analysis, then, has
captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that
we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language
on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be
doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger's gender terminology is not
radically revisionist.

Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly
apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely
difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that
the gender terminology we in fact employ /is/ Haslanger's proposed
gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply
everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are
applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger,
then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is

        4.2.2 Gender uniessentialism

Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender
essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and
starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report
gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different
person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to
understand and articulate this. However, Witt's work departs in
important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender
realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some
essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which
failed to take women's differences into account. Further,
uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in
response to the problem of how we should conceive of women's social
kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender
nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly
shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical
ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims
to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who
we are.^[9

Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally
philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the
former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all
members of some kind have in common /qua/ members of that kind. The
latter asks: what makes an individual /the/ individual it is. We can
further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean
identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks:
what makes an individual /that/ individual? The latter, however, asks a
slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals?
What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum
total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over
gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind
essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt's
uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.)
From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian
one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role:
these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts
constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a
collection of particles. Witt's example is of a house: the essential
house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is)
unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a
house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a,
6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and
provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and
determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to
this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.

It is important to clarify the notions of /gender/ and /social
individuality/ that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position
that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and
bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men's socially
mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from
the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to
sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman
is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be
a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering”
(2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes /persons/ (those who possess
self-consciousness), /human beings/ (those who are biologically human)
and /social individuals/ (those who occupy social positions
synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not
equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity
conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human
beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two
respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next
whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity,
social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is
both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19).
Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human
being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of
intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness.
However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic
feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence
on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is
essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social
world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic
features that could not exist without a social world.

Witt's gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to /social
individuals/, not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or
human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender
essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those
who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have
norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an
individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and
evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, /qua/ social individuals, we
occupy multiple social positions at ones and over time: we can be women,
mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and
team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for
Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social /individual/ is
constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not
make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like /being
white/, /cube-shaped/ and /sweet/ do not make for a sugar cube). For
Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a
man): it is

    a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and
    determines all other social positions both synchronically and
    diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a
    principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)

By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles
and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of
social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and
practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given
one's social position(s) and one's social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The
sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do)
conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in
order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a
/single/ social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the
existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to
conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.

Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt
takes it to be /the/ social role — as she puts it, it is /the mega
social role/ that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social
role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1)
if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of
social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of
other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a
life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as
their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans
people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that
the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come
into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and
undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies
the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a
parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social
roles differ depending on the agent's gender, since gender imposes
different social norms to govern the execution of the further social
roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race
— is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role.
Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view.
Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By
contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and
cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of
human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role
that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender
essentialism not only explains social agents' connectedness to their
gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women's agency
— something that is central to feminist politics.

        4.2.3 Gender as positionality

Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category
of women is feminism's starting point, but various critiques about
gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists
should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In
response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as /positionality/
whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from
which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes
one's social position to foster the development of specifically gendered
identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective
experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are
constituted by women's position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that
there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the
grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:

    /Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different
    relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with
    biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and
    breast-feeding, involving one's body/. (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in

The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female,
although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a
different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to
reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006,
172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of
reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena
that position women and men: it can be

    the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the
    development of differential forms of embodiment experienced
    throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective
    responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great
    relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)

Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals
that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men
differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one's lived
experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered
social identities: one's role in reproduction helps configure how one is
socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically
gendered social identities.

Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts,
“there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8).
Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the
original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference
(understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour)
provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the
development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of

    we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective
    category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent
    practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the
    old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff
    2006, 175)

That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively
to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on
the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the
sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social
segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance,
technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that
this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women's specifically gendered
social identities that are constituted by their context dependent
positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.

    5. Conclusion

This entry first looked at feminist arguments against biological
determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it
examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and
sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the
final section looked at how a unified women's category could be
articulated for feminist political purposes and illustrated (at least)
two things. First, that gender — or /what it is to be/ a woman or a man
— is still very much a live issue. Second, that feminists have not
entirely given up the view that gender is about /social/ factors and
that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is
still out on what the best, the most useful or (even) the correct
definition of gender is. And some contemporary feminists still find
there to be value in the original 1960s sex/gender distinction.


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    Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  * Zack, N., 2005, /Inclusive Feminism/, Lanham, MD: Rowman &
    Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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I am very grateful to Tuukka Asplund, Jenny Saul, Alison Stone and Nancy
Tuana for their extremely helpful and detailed comments when writing
this entry.

Copyright © 2016 <https://plato.stanford.edu/info.html#c> by
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