Materialist Feminist Conceptualizations of Sex-Gender

Materialist feminism itself arose out of the division and conflict between the aforementioned radical feminism and Marxist feminism in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It was not the feminisms of Andrea Dworkin and Marilyn Frye, though, that materialist feminists were responding to, but rather the more aptly named ‘cultural feminisms’ of Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and co. They grounded gendered reality in biological differences between so-called sexes (rather than the radical feminist & materialist feminist concept of sex classes). The charge of biological reductionism on the fault of cultural feminism, and the charge of economism and class reductionism on the fault of Marxist feminism in turn produced what could be seen as a synthesis of the two in materialist feminism.

Monique Wittig

Monique Wittig’s analysis of sex-gender was particularly cogent for her time. Wittig sought to ground sex class distinction in the heterosexual labour contract of society. As such, she analyzed lesbians as non-women in her most famous quote “Lesbians are not women“.

For Wittig, “sex” is not a precultural phenomenon constituted by biological properties, but is inherently connected to heterosexuality; that which constitutes it. She argues that categories inevitably develop relationships, and as a result are subsequently constituted by them:

The sexes, in spite of their constitutive difference, must inevitably develop relationships from category to category. Belonging to the natural order, these relationships cannot be spoken of as social relationships. This thought which impregnates all discourses, including common-sense ones (Adam’s rib or Adam is, Eve is Adam’s rib), is the thought of domination

She argues that “sex” is the category that forms society as heterosexual. It is quite obvious that heterosexuality presumes a “sex” to ground itself; it requires the polar opposition between “male” and “female” to constitute heterosexuality vis a vis the relationality between them. As such, “sex” is not about ontology, not about metaphysics, but is inevitably socially structured:

The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual

The category of sex is the one that rules as “natural” the relation that is at the base of (heterosexual) society and through which half of the population, women, are “heterosexualized” (the making of women is like the making of eunuchs, the breeding of slaves, of animals) and submitted to a heterosexual economy. For the category of sex is the product of a heterosexual society which imposes on women the rigid obligation of the reproduction of the “species,” that is, the reproduction of heterosexual society.

Wittig considers this sex binarism as the “ideology of sex difference”, that which is required for the structural maintenance of heterosexuality at both material, economic and cultural levels:

The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking, on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women. Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. Every system of domination establishes divisions at the material and economic level.

As a result, Wittig believes that sex is itself constituted by oppression, so that a feminist movement has no choice but to abolish sex:

For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society.

Wittig’s argument here is that to presume that sex is the cause of oppression, rather than oppression producing sex, is to naturalize that oppression: to say that there is some pre-cultural “sex” that then causes oppression, which would be an unsatisfactory result for the feminist project, for it would deem anti-oppressive projects impossible.

Even more, her analysis of the ideology of male domination leads her to conclude that it is male domination that produces the idea of “sex” as natural, rather than relationally discursive:

What is this thought which refuses to reverse itself, which never puts into question what primarily constitutes it? This thought is the dominant thought. It is a thought which affirms an “already there” of the sexes, something which is supposed to have come before all thought, before all society. This thought is the thought of those who rule over women.

It is this domination ideology that produces sex as binary, that produces sex as biological, that produces sexual division as natural:

Dominance thus teaches us from all directions:
-that there are before all thinking, all society, “sexes”(two categories of individuals born) with a constitutive difference, a difference that has ontological consequences (the metaphysical approach),
-that there are before all thinking, all social order, “sexes” with a “natural” or “biological” or “hormonal” or “genetic” difference that has sociological consequences (the scientific approach),
-that there is before all thinking, all social order, a “natural division of labor in the family,” a “division of labor [that] was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act” (the Marxist approach).

Christine Delphy

Christine Delphy is most often considered “the” feminist that founded the strand of materialist feminism. She burst onto the scene with her work “The Main Enemy” as an analysis of women’s oppression. Beyond that, she has developed an intriguing account of sex-gender in her piece Rethinking Sex and Gender.

Delphy finds fault with the unstated presumption that feminist theory has been based on: that sex precedes gender in a way that constitutes the coatrack model—sex is precultural and gender ‘arises’ from it. Delphy considers this wrongheaded:

What should have happened, however, is that recognising the independence of the genders from the sexes should have led us to question whether gender is in fact independent of sex. But this question has not been asked. For most authors, the issue of the relationship between sex and gender is simply ‘what sort of social classification does sex give rise to? Is it strong or weak, equal or unequal?’ What they never ask is why sex should give rise to any sort of social classification. Even the neutral question ‘we have here two variables, two distributions, which coincide totally. How can we explain this covariance?’ does not get considered.

She examines the possibilities for the relationship between sex and gender and concludes that the only logical and empirically supported one is that gender precedes sex, using sex as the “mark of difference” to create and maintain hierarchy:

That gender precedes sex: that sex itself simply marks a social division; that it serves to allow social recognition and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated. That is, that sex is a sign, but that since it does not distinguish just any old thing from anything else, and does not distinguish equivalent things but rather important and unequal things it has historically acquired a symbolic value.

She notes that this construction of sex requires several social acts; that the biological properties that constitute the social marker of sex must be dichotomized and flattened to a single property in order to create a sexual binary:

The marker is not found in a pure state, all ready for use. As Hurtig and Pichevin (1986) have shown, biologists see sex as made up of several indicators which are more or less correlated one with another, and the majority are continuous variables (occurring in varying degrees). So in order for sex to be used as a dichotomous classification, the indicators have to be reduced to just one. And as Hurtig and Pichevin (1985) also say, this reduction ‘is a social act’

Her analysis leads to an inevitable conclusion: that gender must be abolished. It is a logical consequence of the feminist project, a necessary consequence as such:

All feminists reject the sex/gender hierarchy, but very few are ready to admit that the logical consequence of this rejection is a refusal of sex roles, and the disappearance of gender. Feminists seem to want to abolish hierarchy and even sex roles, but not difference itself. They want to abolish the contents but not the container. They all want to keep some elements of gender. Some want to keep more, others less, but at the very least they want to maintain the classification. Very few indeed are happy to contemplate there being simple anatomical sexual differences which are not given any social significance or symbolic value. Suddenly the categories they use for analysis, which elsewhere clearly distinguish those who think difference comes first and hierarchy afterwards from those who think the contents of the divided groups are the product of the hierarchical division, become muzzy, and the divergence between the two schools fades away.

The second bolded section brings us to Delphy’s final point (and will spring us into the next discussion): that hierarchy precedes division. It is not that we divide humans into “males” and “females”, note their properties and then erect a hierarchy of “male” over “female”, it is that hierarchy comes first. This reanalysis, for Delphy, has two important consequences. First, that it is not possible to think of a society where women are “lifted up” to the social role of men, for this implies that all of society can become dominant:

One can no more conceive of a society where everyone is ‘dominant’ than of one where everyone is ‘richer’.

Second, she notes that the feminist project cannot aim for, like some cultural feminists like Mary Daly have advocated for, a society based on “feminine values” or “feminine virtues”; the entire concept of femininity is premised on hierarchy, constructed and constituted by hierarchy:

It is also not possible to imagine the values of a future egalitarian society as being the sum, or a combination, of existing masculine and feminine values, for these values were created in and by hierarchy. So how could they survive the end of hierarchy?

Colette Guillamin

Colette Guillamin is a French sociologist renowned for her work on the relation and construction of race and sex. Her extensive work throughout the late 1900s is collected in an anthology called Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. For the sake of space, I’ll primarily be quoting Danielle Juteau-Lee’s summary-introduction to the anthology, in which she explains Guillamin’s theoretical turns and arguments. Her argument(s) for the construction of race and sex have a common strand.

First, we must question the idea that there is a non-situated “nature” inside of which social categories “pop out” for social appropriation:

Those who talk about the natural specificity of the ‘races’, of the sexes and of other social groups are in fact saying that a specific nature produces social practices. This amounts, as she reminds us, to a substantialism, a pseudo-materialism, a material and not a materialist position; the properties attributed to matter ‘arise not as consequences of the relations which the material form maintains with its universe and its history…but actually as characteristics intrinsically symbolic of matter itself

Guillaumin uses historical analysis to isolate the particular ideological formulations and processes that lead to these type of beliefs, and performs one of her famous “reversals”. It is not because of the “nature” of a social category that the members of that category, and the category itself, are socially appropriated – a “nature” is attributed to social categories (like races and sexes) because they are appropriated. This reversal is important: it is essential to materialist analysis.

Guillaumin emphasizes that the allocation of individuals into racial [and sexual] categories can only occur once they have been socially constituted and naturalized. Once constituted, these categories must be identified; marks, arbitrary marks, will then be chosen. The choice of a signifier follows the establishment of social categories; and, as we will see, it is precisely because there exists a social category that the signifier is operative.

For Guillaumin, the way that the signifier comes to operate and the temporality and direction of causality between the social category and its signifiers are very important things to note. That there exist average differences between social categories on social, biological, or other traits does not itself naturalize social groups, it is a particular socio-historical process that naturalizes the groups by turning traits into signifiers:

No one denies the existence of somatic, biological (in the case of the sexes) and phenotypical differences between human beings. Nor does anyone deny that skin colour exists and cannot be removed. But choice of a signifier does not happen haphazardly. The fact that skin colour [and sexual anatomy] and not eye colour, shape of ears or length of feet are usually used as signifiers in our society is explainable; it results from the conjunctural association between an economic relationship and physical attributes.

She reverses the typical theorized relationship again:

Another reversal is effected here by Guillaumin, between the signifier and the position occupied in a given system; it is not because your skin is black that you were enslaved, that you became a slave, but because you were a slave that you became black or more precisely that colour becomes significant.

Guillaumin’s specific theoretical current of feminism can be distinguished from its historical influencing antecedents: radical feminism and Marxist feminism.

Radical feminism emphasizes the fundamental opposition between men and women, the central oppression of women qua women. All men, irrespective of class or ‘race’, benefit, though in different ways, from a system of domination where women are economically, politically, legally and culturally subordinated to men. Radical feminists recognize the existence of ‘sex’-gender relations that are socially constructed mainly within the family, and suggest different interpretations as to their basis

Walby points out that, for Marxists, gender inequality
derives from capitalism and is not to be constituted as an independent
system of patriarchy, since men’s domination over women is a byproduct of capital’s domination over labour. Marxist feminism usually limited its materialism to the economic and the economic to relations constitutive of capitalist social classes, i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; consequently it usually located gender in the ideological instance and affirmed that gender inequality derived from capitalism and benefited capitalist

Her work is of the utmost importance and is a fantastic start for any feminist theorization on sex, so I recommend reading the introduction here.

Stevi Jackson

Stevi Jackson is renowned for her recent revival of materialist feminism with her in-depth analyses of gender, sexuality and the networks between them in her extensive sociological work on the topic. Her 2001 article ‘Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary‘ revisits Christine Delphy’s aforementioned essay and reminisces over the history of the relation between Marxist feminism and materialist feminism. She summarily explains her view:

At the level of social structure gender is a hierarchical relation, constitutive of social men and social women, sustained through divisions of labour and other means, notably the heterosexual marriage contract. Here, gender intersects with institutionalised heterosexuality, bolstered by law, the state, and social convention. The institution of heterosexuality is inherently gendered; it rests upon the assumed normality of specific forms of social and sexual relations between women and men. Gender is also constructed at the level of meaning, through the cultural distinction between women and men, the unspoken and taken-for granted means by which we embody and recognise each other as women or as men as well as the more overt norms of appropriate femininity and masculinity. Sexuality is socially constructed at the level of meaning through its constitution as the object of discourse and through the specific discourses on the sexual in circulation at any historical moment; these discourses serve to define what is sexual, to differentiate the “perverse” from the “normal” and to delimit appropriately masculine and feminine forms of sexuality. However, meaning is also deployed within and emergent from social interaction, and hence finds its expression at yet another level—that of our everyday social practices, through which each of us negotiates and makes sense of our own gendered and sexual lives. Here, too, gender and sexuality are constantly in the process of being constructed and reconstructed, enacted and reenacted, within specific social contexts and relationships. Gender and sexuality are thus socially constructed by what embodied individuals actually do. Finally, sexuality and gender are socially constructed at the level of subjectivity, through complex social and cultural process by which we acquire sexual and gendered desires and identities.

This intervention here has come to me time and time again throughout my reading of the debates over sex and gender: fundamentally there are disconnects between the people who isolate their analysis to one portion of the network of gender concepts.

In a 2017 article with her often-coauthor Sue Scott, she explains her opinions on the “trans issue” by recounting the history of sociological analysis of gender:

The concept of gender has developed via a number of perspectives (Jackson and Scott 2000). Early research on intersex and ‘transexualism’ provided a basis for de-coupling sociocultural gender from biological ‘sex’ and ultimately for questioning the binary itself. A significant piece of sociological work on this issue was Garfinkel’s 1967 essay on Agnes, which made it possible to explore more fully gender as social rather than natural.

They point out that in contrast to many, sociological perspectives don’t presume a particular model of gender and then exclude trans people on that basis, but use the existence of trans people as a foundation for a critique:

In academic circles, however, it is widely assumed that those whose bodies do not match this dichotomous classification, or who cross gender boundaries or who bend or blend definitions of gender, have something to teach us about the ways in which gender is constructed and its significance within contemporary society and culture. This issue has been approached from a number of different feminist sociological perspectives and the importance of thinking about how the binary itself works has been crucial to most of them.

Jackson and Scott repeat the mainstream feminist view that womanhood is not constituted by biology, a single characteristic or a cluster of them, but is embodied culturally and socially:

The notion of who is a ‘real’ woman is at the heart of the recent controversies. It is important not to define womanhood as biological though it clearly is embodied and embodied differently by cis and trans women, not least because the later often undergo complex medical procedures. We should not deny trans women their status as women on the basis of biology. Appealing to the body as a site of authentic womanhood not only risks a slide into essentialism, thus undermining the radical promise of the concept of gender, but also risks homogenizing (cis) women who do not all experience their bodies in the same way.

Emphasizing the feminist result that womanhood is a social construct, they offer a poignant critique of the idea of ‘real womanhood’:

We would suggest that arguing about who is as ‘real’ woman is to look at the issue from the wrong end. If we take gender seriously, think about it sociologically, then no one is a ‘real’ woman – there is no such thing as ‘real’ womanhood, because it is in itself a social construct. Moreover there is a huge variation in what it means to be male or female and in the lived experience of such. Nonetheless, there is a difference between staying with the gender assigned at birth and changing that gender. So what difference does this biographical difference make?