Essentialism: Draft of 3W Encyclopedia Entry

I've just finished a draft of the entry on essentialism for the Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism. As I've said before, the audience for this book is high school / undergraduate / general public, so I've tried to write the entry keeping that in mind. The editor sent me some entries from the Encyclopedia of Rape for me to follow, and I've tried to stay in keeping with the conventions of those entries, which tend to start out with a history of the thing or concept. In this entry, I attempted to show the "so what" of essentialism too. Hopefully the editor will think it's okay.

ESSENTIALISM. In a broad sense, essentialism is the assumption that all members of a particular race, class, gender, or sexual orientation share common characteristics, an assumption that can lead to damaging prejudicial stereotypes of such groups. When applied to gender, essentialism is the belief that, because biological differences exist between women and men, women and men are "naturally" different in terms of character and personality as well. An essentialist position views men as strong, aggressive, violent, brave, logical, disciplined, lustful, and independent. Women, on the other hand, are weak, passive, gentle, cowardly, emotional, lacking self-control and stamina, lacking in sexual appetites, and highly invested in their relationships with others. Essentialism has a long history in Western culture and philosophy, going at least as far back as ancient Greece, as evidenced by the fact that Aristotle wrote about men's being naturally more noble, courageous, and virtuous than women. In the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke argued that the social division of the sexes was justified by the natural differences between male and female bodies; this theory was known as “natural law.” Eighteenth-century scientists began studying the male and female body and concluded that because males' skulls were larger than females' skulls and females' pelvises were larger than males' pelvises, men were more fit for politics, business, and public life in general, and women, whose smaller skulls presumably indicated lesser intelligence, were best suited to bearing children and tending the home (Schiebinger, "Skeletons").

The implications of an essentialist view of gender are far-reaching. Traditional gender roles are to an extent based on an underlying biological determinism, or the view that "biology is destiny." As a result, women have long had primary responsibility for parenting and housework, and men have been the breadwinners. Even today, men outnumber women in positions of prestige in business and government, and girls and women are not as strongly encouraged to pursue careers in math, science, and technology as boys and men (Lay "Computer Culture").

Feminists who have wanted to expose – and change – the social organization of gender have objected to essentialism for its oversimplified and hierarchical definition of what is manly and what is womanly, but feminists have also had to be careful not to fall into the trap of essentializing women as a group themselves. Anyone can see that women do not share a common set of attributes; women (and men) can be aggressive and logical at some times and passive and emotional at other times. Therefore, feminists have been stuck in a “difference dilemma” -- politically, feminists need to be able to make claims about women as a group, such as “women must have reproductive freedom,” or “science courses need to be redesigned to accommodate women's learning styles” (Schiebinger 3, Sorisio 146). These claims can easily be read as subscribing to essentialist assumptions, but many feminists are willing to take the intellectual risk of essentialism to critique social and economic inequities that cut along gender lines.

References / Suggested Reading

Guess, Carol. “Deconstructing Me: On Being (Out) in the Academy.” Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, ed. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press.

Lay, Mary. "The Computer Culture, Gender, and Nonacademic Writing: An Interdisciplinary Critique." Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology, ed. Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996: 57-80.

Ritchie, Joy. "Confronting the 'Essential' Problem: Reconnecting Feminist Theory and Pedagogy." Feminism and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook, ed. Gesa E. Kirsch, Faye Spencer Maor, Lance Massey, Lee Nickoson-Massey, and Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003: 79-102.

Schiebinger, Londa. "Introduction." Feminism and the Body, ed. Londa Schiebinger. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000: 1-21.

Schiebinger, Londa. "Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy." Feminism and the Body, ed. Londa Schiebinger. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000: 25-57.

Snitow, Ann. "A Gender Diary." Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990: 9-43.

Sorisio, Carolyn. "A Tale of Two Feminisms: Power and Victimization in Contemporary Feminist Debate." Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, ed. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press.


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Fantastic entry! The only comment I would make is that I think you make your opponent a straw man.

Essentialism presents itself it ways that people are more likely to believe, such as "the classic literature of the past 2000 years is classic because it speaks to the essential human condition..." Essentialism is also a _historical_ category -- a belief that there are no deep ruptures in what people are like over thousands of years, because we are all still human..."

And, then, of course, there is a political problem: the gay right movement has pretty much cast its lot with the essentialists, because, well, this argument that "people are born gay" has been pretty effective. (I'm not making a comment on weather or not this is true, of course. It's just presents a problem because the argument has obvious essentialists roots.)

But of course, given the length contraints, these are pretty silly points I'm making.

All Day Permanent Red

Not silly!

You've given me a lot to think about. I'll think about how I can work this point in and stay within the 500-word limit. When I send in my entry on performativity, I'll propose the change to the editor.


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This unit of General Public thinks your entry is fab. If I can get it, anyone can. Good show. :)


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