Let’s cut to the chase: I abhor gender essentialism and not just in the abstract sense that this stuff hurts women as a class (though it does and that would certainly be reason enough to detest this type of biological determinism). My reasons, however, are personal as much as they are political. My life has been marred by extreme violence and abuse, body image issues, anorexia, addiction, and severe depression. I spent much of my teen years hating myself and wanting to die. But it wasn’t always like that. As a little girl, I was an entirely different person. Happy, confident, curious, a natural leader. What happened, you ask? Gender happened. Specifically, being forced into the female gender role. You know, the one that should have come naturally, given that I was born female and all.
In this post and the next, I’ll be discussing gender essentialism–the belief that women are one way and men are another way and these differences are the result of biology, not socialization–and the damage done to girls when they are forced into the female gender straightjacket. Unfortunately proponents of gender essentialism are everywhere. And it’s not just conservatives, MRAs and evo psych adherents (lots of overlap there) who believe that men and women are inherently different due to biologically determined gender roles. Recently I’ve come across several self-described feminists and feminist allies seemingly invested in denying that gender is a social construct. My guess is that most people believe, more or less strongly, that at least some gender differences (not to be confused with sex differences though they frequently are) are innate. This is very much the mainstream view, which is why it’s so annoying when those who subscribe to it pretend they’re courageously speaking an unpopular truth that some of us ladies just don’t want to accept.
And why would women be particularly reluctant to accept an essentialist view of gender? Duh! Because while the gender binary is limiting for men as well, in a patriarchal society (and which society isn’t?) it’s far more limiting for women. Gender essentialism has been used to advocate, explain, and excuse the oppression of women for eons, what with us being “naturally” passive, submissive, emotional, illogical, helpless, nurturing, self-sacrificing, dependent, peace-loving, and all that.
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