Charlotte Witt on Gender Essences

In Aeon magazine.

Why can’t the woman candidate simply choose to identify as an aspiring academic, thereby making her attire unimportant?

My answer is that gendered norms – in this case gendered norms of appearance – trump other norms that structure our social agency, in this case again, the clothing-as-unimportant norm that governs being an academic. And, it turns out that what is true of gender norms in the world of philosophy, that lofty and abstract realm, is also true of the social world as a whole. Gendered norms trump, prioritise, and permeate the multitude of norms that structure our agency and lived experience.

9 thoughts on “Charlotte Witt on Gender Essences

  1. That was good. I’ve always thought a lot of confusion derives from “biology =/= destiny” by not distinguishing between essentialism as a way to nominate/categorize identity and essentialism as the proscription of ends (teleology, I guess). The article does a great job of unpacking that.

  2. Everything in that paragraph seems true, and I agree with her general point that gendered norms seem to trump other dress norms. But I’m having trouble with the notion of essence being used here. It doesn’t seem to me to amount to much. She says our gender is essential to us, in the metaphysical sense that we wouldn’t be the same person if we had a different socially-assigned gender. But she also seems to recognize that gender categorizations and expectations change over time, which means that the gender that is essential to me might have different properties than it had 30 years ago. It has to be the same gender that I belong to, or I’d be a different person, but the properties of that kind have changed significantly over those 30 years. That means the particular properties of each kind have changed, and those turn out not to be essential to me. What is essential to me are the name of the property I’m assigned and its historical connection with previous versions of the same gender category.

    But isn’t the point of taking gender to be essential undermined once you recognize that social categories like this change over time? No particular aspect of my gender is necessarily essential, but the gender is, she would then have to say. I’m not sure this amounts to all that significant an essentialist claim.

    Alternatively, she might hold that gender categories don’t change over time, but that seems at odds with the evidence, and I think the right thing to say if you did hold that view would be that what gender we have changes over time, if only slightly. But that’s clearly not her view. Am I missing something, or am I understanding her view correctly?

  3. I just thought I should clarify my comment a bit more (ambiguous and maybe suggests I’m up for an uncomplicated metaphysical essentialism) and maybe I can build on some of Jeremy Pierce’s points too. First, what I meant to say less opaquely is that attribution of gender does seem to be a different question of what doing gender entails, ie what expectations are imposed on you once that attribution is made. The trouble with that though is that the attribution of essence by others seems to depend on a recitation of those norms and to be “read” correctly to avoid negative social consequences. Precisely /because/ gender is important do we get caught up in normative expectations. That makes the task of sorting the essential from the accidental a difficult (perhaps impossible) one. As Jeremy points to, out of the mess of properties, what appears essential at one point in time, may appear accidental at another. But the puzzle with historicizing gender is that despite changes gender itself persists? So you have this on-going dialectic between gender as historical invariant and the way gender is cashed out from one historical context to another.

    I think the author is trying hard (and doing well) to negotiate that tension. On the one hand, the author resists collapsing gender into an artifact of oppression. “But if being a woman is to be subordinated (in one way or another), the end of patriarchy would spell the end of women (and men).” But on the other hand, the author also seems to resist putting a finger down on exactly what that essence might be (although there’s an implicit appeal to self-understanding in the thought experiment at the beginning of the paper). The main issue seems to be that we have this social/essence dialectic and if you cleave to one-side over the other, you get the artifactualist account (gender as product of oppression) or a metaphysical account (gender reifies oppression;gender erases/excludes some identities). While Kant gets to see a bit of a kicking in this article, lumped in with a liberal approach to the social that sees gender norms as a choice, it seems to me it might be helpful to take a different leaf out of Kant’s playbook and treat gender essences as something like a regulative ideal. That would seem to me to be a way of acknowledging that gender is an inescapable problem/question for society, one that you might be able to link to the politics of reproductive difference without that thereby entailing a demarcation of gender or biological determinism fixed by reproductive difference (or some other property).

  4. Jeremy Pierce writes: “[The sense of essentialism used here] doesn’t seem to me to amount to much. She says our gender is essential to us, in the metaphysical sense that we wouldn’t be the same person if we had a different socially-assigned gender.”

    It seems to me to amount to an extraordinarily strong claim, since (given the very minimal assumption that what is necessarily the case is always the case) it entails that no one ever survives a gender transition. That just seems straightforwardly in conflict with the basic data.

  5. Anon– I took her view of such cases to be that the person has not *transitioned*, but instead has always been the gender that is attributed to them after the so-called “transition”.

  6. I’m not sure that solves the problem. It doesn’t seem to me to fit well with seeing gender as public. She distinguishes her public gender identity from how people ordinarily use “gender identity” to mean something internal to yourself. This is something outward, not something grounded in how you personally identify, which is what many transgender people see as the explanation of why they’re really a gender other than the one assigned at birth. I don’t think that kind of analysis is compatible with seeing gender as a purely public phenomenon. That wouldn’t prelude another level of analysis about the kind of gender identity that’s more internal playing some role in determining what you really and fundamentally are. But it wouldn’t be what Witt is calling gender. It would be something else.

  7. That might be a reasonable way to describe some cases, e.g. cases where someone has always taken himself or herself (or hirself, etc.) to have been misgendered by society. Witt’s claim, however, entails that *every* case of putative gender transition *must* have a structure like that, or some other ultimately static structure; it rules out genderfluidity completely. But there are plenty of people who take themselves to be genderfluid and are taken by those around them to be genderfluid; Witt is committed to a wholesale error theory of those gender ascriptions, along with much else. Even if one shares the basic modal intuition (and, to be frank, I don’t) this ought at least to give one pause.

  8. It should be noted for clarity that sex transition and gender transition are different. There are plenty of folks whose gender and sex are opposed.

  9. Anon grad students: that’s absolutely right. And it’s a problem since it’s at odds with what many trans people would themselves say.

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