At some point, we’ve all been subject to those ‘forwards’ on Mother’s Day or Daughter’s Day that enlist the traits one ought to admire about the women – kind, nurturing, emotional, soft, ever-enduring women. Many of us have recoiled from those sugary sweet, rose infested wishes, thinking “who the heck are these women?” not because being kind and having emotions is something to scoff at, but because it read more like a section from ‘Patriarchy’s Guide To Being A Woman.’ Some of that discomfort comes from (in case you were looking for the word) an ‘essentialist’ view of womanhood.
Essentialism is a close relative of “generalization” and “universalization.” It involves paring something down to those attributes, traits or behaviours that we presume is its “essence.”
Sounds a bit airy-fairy but remember that it’s been had some nefarious uses in the past. Remember how British colonizers said Indians were essentially incapable of self-governing? Or how Europeans saw Africans as essentially a slave race? Or how Nazi Germans saw Jewish and Romani people as essentially inferior? Or how the West thinks Muslims are essentially bloodthirsty? It has also meant that much of human history records White Europeans as essentially enlightened and blessed.
But there have been attempts to put the concept to better use. Back in the 1970s, French feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, tried to raise the social value of femininity (especially those qualities the patriarchy loves to belittle) by writing extensively about feminine bodies. Unfortunately, this attempt precluded all women who did not have vaginas, breasts, the ability to give birth, and a classic ‘feminine’ nature.
“Wait, but all women have vaginas and give birth, right? That’s what makes you a woman, right?”
By that definition, trans women, intersex folks, women who for various reasons cannot conceive, women who choose not to conceive, women who have had double mastectomies, and women who do not procreate heterosexually are, by this definition, not Women™. And what happens to people who have vaginas and who menstruate, but identify as (trans) men or non-binary?
Paeans and pop songs have been written to the ‘essence’ of woman, but romantic jibberings aside, there is no answer to the question “what is a woman?” Even if we’re given to Plato’s original essentialist philosophy – a ‘world of ideas’ where things exist in their purest, most real form, thereby making everything in the physical world imprecise copies – it would mean the ‘essence’ is a physical impossibility. And maybe it’s better that we take a cue from Plato, because we’d sooner arrive at this conclusion: “womanhood is an unachievable end.”
Judith Butler has written about the performativity of gender – meaning that the moment a female-identified person stops performing her ‘feminine’ role, it becomes difficult to classify her as a ‘woman.’ And there’s all these checks and balances to make sure women keep performing. We shame their bodies for daring to grow hair, we make fun of them for having anything less than a C-cup, we call them “boyish and ugly” for having taller builds and shorter hair. We click our tongues when they play contact sports, and we mourn conspicuously when they can’t have babies. All of this flies in the face of a ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ womanhood, when ‘women’ are produced through a lot of social interfering.
But it isn’t just about (not) having certain attributes. Essentialism as a concept also argues that attributes produce defined and predictable social behaviours – men are ‘naturally aggressive,’ women are ‘naturally meek’ – which only gives credence to the gender binary as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Failure to comply means “gender-policing,” which is uncomfortable for cis women who do not align 100% with Woman™, as well as many trans people, like South Asian poet Alok Vaid-Menon, who are not interested in “passing” as cisgender.
When we think of ‘women’ as essentially baby-making machines, so do most of our systems, from family to legislation to even medicine.
“Women’s health issues” seems to exist as an altogether independent category, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), trouble conceiving or giving birth. But even with the overemphasis on women’s reproductive health, it continues to be a limited sphere. Issues like endometriosis, which affects 89 million women worldwide, is still not taken seriously enough. Too many women have had their health concerns dismissed with a casual “just lose some weight,” or “you’re overreacting.” And a range of morally-loaded chastisements prevent women from seeking and getting medical attention for problems regarding sexual activity.
The institutionalization of gender-essentialism is also apparent in how medical diagnosis is male-oriented. Because “men’s health issues,” tend to encompass a broad spectrum of medical risks, like HIV/AIDS, ADHD, heart disease, or drug addiction, procedures for diagnoses itself are oriented towards the male body. The essence of womanhood, it appears, does not include such medical risks.
Further, because medical practices are given to classifying women as person-with-vagina-and-uterus, many institutes are completely ill-equipped to address the health needs of trans women – that is of course, if they’re not busy denying them treatment altogether!
Not only does essentializing confine women to their gender role, many of our laws and provisions are drafted keeping only a ‘certain’ woman in mind. In India, we legally permit marital rape, because a woman’s essence is dutifully submitting to her husband’s every demand.
A woman’s essence lies in her current or impending motherhood, and has consequences for the workplace. The Maternity Benefit Act that gives new moms 26 weeks leave is a hard won victory, but has created a deep division between working moms and all the single ladies – the latter having to “[pick] up the slack when other women took off to have babies.”
A woman’s essence also, apparently, makes her incompatible with STEM environments, because – as accusations from male peers reveals – they are too emotional, too irrational, and too distracting to be there.
Finally, a woman’s essence has truly made her the second sex, relegating her to a mere satellite in man’s orbit, always cast as someone’s daughter, or wife, or sister or mother, and never really her own person, with her own mind and her own needs. And that may be the root of all this trouble in the first place.
Featured Image Source: Getty Images.