On the one hand, feminists claim to want to end the oppression of women. On the other hand, 20th and 21st century feminism has radically called into the question what it even means to be a “woman” at all. Indeed, such investigations are conducted as parts of radical revaluations of our conception of reality, according to which all identities are mutable and malleable social constructions. Feminists have frequently understood the concept of “woman” as referring to gender rather than sex; that is, as something which refers to social and cultural realities rather than immutable biological ones. Although frequently used interchangeably in ordinary language, the terms “sex” and “gender” have come under a great deal of scrutiny by feminist philosophers.
“Sex” is typically seen as referring to biologically elements which differentiate males and females, whereas “gender” is seen as referring specifically to cultural or social factors which bind the sexes to specific roles or identities. Feminists have articulated this distinction in order to repudiate the notion that biology is totally determinative of one’s behavior. Instead, its purpose is to call attention to the fact that certain norms, stereotypes, roles, identities, etc. are imposed on the sexes from without. Instead of resulting inevitably from biological sex, many feminists insist that such norms result at least partially from social or cultural constructions.
Some feminists take exception to the notion that there are only two sexes. Indeed, the two-sex model is rejected by some feminists as nothing but a social construction:
“Fausto-Sterling has recently 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.”
Judith Butler famously rejects the distinction between gender and sex altogether. She does this because her metaphysics rejects the distinction between culture and an underlying material substrate onto which language is imposed. It is therefore, in her mind, unintelligible to speak of a distinctly biological “sex” as opposed to purely social “gender.” She is among other philosophers who completely rejected biology/construction, sex/gender and nature/culture distinctions. Butler is therefore a kind of idealist. Just as Kant believed that we impose certain ideas on reality, such as spatiality, causality, and so on, in order to make sense of it, rather than a mind-independent reality imposing itself upon us, so also, Judith Butler holds that we impose our social and linguistic categories upon reality in order to make sense of it, rather than a mind-independent world imposing itself upon us.
“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). 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). 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.)”
The idea that there exists no mind-independent reality simply because humans only experience reality through a social and linguistic framework is specious on the face of it. The critical realist and the pragmatist may accept that there is a degree to which reality is socially constructed for humans, but it is never constructed from nothing. Indeed, that stuff from which it is constructed is oftentimes by intractable and metaphysically stubborn, resistant to the sorts of influences we would like to have upon it.
Charlotte Witt has articulated a form of gender essentialism known as uniessentialism. She argues that many social agents experience gender as being essential to them, even going to the point that they would consider themselves a different person if they were of a different sex or gender. It is the purpose of uniessentialism to examine this. This is an essentialism distinct from that to which most are accustomed, however. She does not postulate an essential quality of womanhood, but instead, its aim is to appreciate the belief that gender fundamentally constitutes who we are.
Philosophers have typically distinguished between kind and individual essentialism. Kind essentialism was explored in the previous article, particularly insofar as it was articulated by Kripke and Putnam. Whereas kind essentialism is Kripkean, individual essentialism, or uniessentialism, is Aristotelian. Kripke asks what it is that makes an individual that specific individual. Aristotle asks what explains the unity of individuals. Feminists have typically debated over the question of Kripkean essentialism, while ignoring the question of Aristotelian essentialism, which is what interests Witt. Her intereset is in “What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts?”
“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 in light of this that some regard the very possibility of sex reassignment surgery as fundamentally problematic. Writing on the the possibility (or lack thereof) of a genuine sex change, Christopher O. Tollefsen writes:
“what those organ are—a penis or a vagina—can only be identified by reference to the role those organs typically play in the overall biological economy of a sexed human being. The penis typically penetrates the vagina but then also deposits sperm, which is in turn capable of procession towards and penetration of the female oocyte; the vagina is typically a receptacle and conduit of sperm to the oocyte, and so on. And both organs’ identities are linked not only forward in these ways to the functions they might eventually perform, but are also linked backward to previous events and functions. For example, the origin of male gametes is to be found in the production of primordial germ cells that occurs many years before sexual intercourse is even possible, but this production occurs in order that sperm will eventually be produced which the penis will eventually deposit. An organ lacking this historical role in the biological economy is not a penis.
One cannot therefore make a vagina, say, simply by creating an orifice in a particular place. Absent some relationship to a vagina’s larger biological functionality in the organism, no orifice is a vagina. Nor can one create a penis by creating something that will become enlarged on stimulation. One could only genuinely make a penis or vagina by re-creating the entire biological context within which those realities are what they are.
But those larger biological contexts are themselves not freestanding in the organism: The organism is primordially sexed from its very first moment, and its biological development involves the working out through time of capacities that were present at the beginning for the development of those organs in their appropriate contexts.
It is possible, as it turns out, to transplant a penis in a man so that it becomes truly part of his biological life. The situation is relevantly similar to that of a heart transplant. The organ is integrated into a biological matrix that is fundamentally oriented towards that organ’s presence. But no transplant, much less any reconstructive plastic surgery, can integrate a male sex organ into the biological life of a being whose root capacities are female, or vice versa. Nor is it possible that an entirely new set of capacities, dynamically oriented contrary to the orientation already worked out from within the organism’s biological identity, could be integrated into the life of that organism in such a way as to really be a part of his or her biological life.”