The feminist philosopher Susan Bordo suggests that the dilemma of twentieth-century feminism is the tension between a gender identity that both mobilizes a liberatory politics on behalf of women and that results in gender prescriptions which excludes many women. This tension seems especially acute in feminist debates about essentialism/deconstructionism. Concentrating on the shared sex of women may run the risk of embracing an essentialism that ignores the differences among women, whereas emphasizing the constructed natures of sex and gender categories seems to threaten the very project of a feminist politics. I will analyze the possibility of dismantling gender prescriptions while retaining a gender identity that can be the beginning for an emancipatory politics. Perhaps feminists need not rely on a reified essentialism that elides the differences of race, class, etc., if we begin with our social practices of classification rather than with a priori generalizations about the nature of women.
Perhaps it is easiest to begin with that which seems self-evident: we categorize people according to sex. Therefore, it also seems self-evident that women form a (natural) group based on a shared sex, resulting in a common gender identity. Historically, feminism politics have relied on this assumed sameness among all women. Feminism can represent the interests of all women because, after all, women are all alike in being women. Of course, women differ with regard to race, class, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. But these differences have been seen as less basic than the shared similarity of sex and gender.
Recently, however, more and more feminists have protested that these differences matter just as much to one's identity as one's sex. They argue that privileging the purportedly shared sex of women is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the identities of actual women. Women are not all the same and their differences are not merely insignificant accidents but are in fact inextricably intertwined with their identities as women. So despite the self-evident fact that we categorize some humans as women, the category of woman seems to presuppose a unity of identity that is, according to many women themselves, empirically implausible. As important as a shared sex might be, many feminists are now arguing that things like race, class, and sexual orientation make the notion of a common gender identity problematic.
The subject of feminist politics, to the extent that it is assumed to be representative of womenkind, is a paradigmatic gender identity in which all women are united. However, to the extent that this subject does not represent all women, it also functions as a gender prescription that legislates an essential gender identity and excludes those women who do not have the 'correct' gender identity. In her essay "Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism", Susan Bordo suggests-citing Nancy Cotts-that the dilemma of...