Biology and The Oppression of Women

With increasing debates within feminism regarding the relationship between biology, the body, and the oppression of women, we need a theory which can explain how these phenomena interact.

Yesterday I published an article on my medium which argued that trans women ought to be included in feminist spaces because no women share totally universal experiences, and because feminism is always already a coalition among women with major differences in embodiment and experience, who simply share the same political goals.

This article obviously intervened into discussions among trans inclusive feminist as well as discussions among trans exclusionary radical feminists. The latter group has largely responded critically, accusing me of failing to pay attention to the biological and embodied aspects of female oppression. More specifically, I have been accused of failing to account for the reasons women are oppressed: their biology.

The image below is a screenshot of one such response which captures the general argument at the core of this critique:

From tumblr user feminimum

This commentor also went on to suggest that contrary to my previous claim that woman is a category which is created by oppression, that women are always already women and are oppressed because they are women.

From these two statements we can conclude that this critic, as well as the other radical feminists who have echo’d her critique, have a certain view of womanhood and the reasons that women are subjected to oppression. It goes something like this: To be a woman is to have female anatomy. Women are a sex caste who are united by their shared sexual anatomy. The mistreatment of women is a result of a hatred for women sexual anatomy and sex caste. Woman or Female as concepts are not produced by patriarchal oppression because patriarchy has to have a non arbitrary reason for targeting certain people for oppression and exploitation. Therefore, women are oppressed because of their anatomy.

Of course, these critics would further argue that as a result of this, trans women can never share in the experience of womanhood, or ever truly be women, even if they experience misogynistic violence at the hands of men.

Another critic put forward the argument below:

From tumblr user tejuina

Here, the argument is once again that it is a preexisting sexual categorization of women as female which results in the oppression of women as a group. This particular critic goes on to claim that while trans women experience misogyny and might even share goals with feminism, they cannot experience the embodied aspects of misogyny, since these aspects of misogyny result directly from a patriarchal impulse to oppress those who are anatomically female.

These objections are not new, and they reflect a broader debate within radical feminist circles. They raise the question: Are women oppressed because they are women, or are women made into women by their oppression? This question is of significant political import. Not only does it affect questions regarding trans inclusion, intersex inclusion, and non-binary inclusion within feminism, but it affects the strategic directions feminist praxis might go in. If biology and anatomy are the root of female oppression, and biology and anatomy cannot be changed (as many radical feminists argue) then we are left with a fairly nihilistic view of the hope for women’s liberation. If on the other hand, women’s oppression results not from women’s biology, but from a dialectical contradiction and resultant class struggle between men and women, then there is an obvious path forward: class war against men as a class.

Given the stakes of this discussion, I hope to respond to these critics and their theory of sex based oppression, not only to defend my own work, but to put forth a materialist feminist theory of why women are oppressed and exploited by men. This is my attempt at providing this theory. This article will be divided into three parts. First, I will investigate what these radical feminists mean when they talk about female embodiment and biology and demonstrate that this category is untenable in the first place. Second, I will explain the political theoretical problems of attributing the root of patriarchal oppression to women's biology. Finally, I will offer a materialist explanation of why and where patriarchy emerges.

What is Female?

In order to understand the problems with the radical feminist conception of female oppression, we must ask what these feminists mean when they speak of “being female” or when they say that “womanhood is based in biology.” What does it mean to be female? What are the characteristics and features which make one either female or not-female? What parts of biology is womanhood supposedly based in? What shared biological experiences do all women have?

My contention is, quite simply, that there is no adequate answer to these questions and that the concept of “being female” cannot adequately be explain through looking at female anatomy. Radical feminist thinkers often turn to biological realities which trans women do not experience in order to demonstrate the unique “biological grounding” which allows cis women to experience “being female.” These thinkers point to menstruation, pregnancy, and a host of other experiences to demonstrate that there is something unique to female biology.

It is important to recognize that these thinkers not only argue that these are unifying biological experiences, but that patriarchy uniquely targets these experiences for misogynistic violence. For example, radical feminist thinkers have correctly noted that there is a long history of obsession over and pathologization of menstruation in patriarchal society. Simone De Beauvoir famously paints a vivid picture of the way that masculine myths use menstruation as a justification for isolating and oppressing women. Furthermore, feminist theorists have looked at the ways pregnancy is used as a means of controlling women by forcing reproductive labor on them, tying them to a nuclear family unit through familial obligation, and being a site of medical domination and intervention at the hands of male doctors. All of these experiences are real, a result of patriarchal oppression, and should not be denied.

The question we are left with, however, is simple: If a woman does not experience these forms of domination, is she a woman? Some women with polycistic ovary syndrome rarely menstruate or do not at all. Women with Mayer-Rokitansky syndrome also do not menstruate. Are these women still women? Do they still share the experience of female oppression even though they do not experience it around menstruation? To me, the answer seems obvious. Of course they are still women, they still are likely subjected to a host of other forms of patriarchal domination at the hands of men.

What about the countless women who are incapable of becoming pregnant? Does this disqualify them from counting as women? Are they now cast into the same group as trans women, consisting of people who face some misogynistic oppression but are not women? Of course not. Because again, we can recognize that they still experience life as women.

So it would seem that the idea that there are a universal set of experiences which women share which derive from their biology does not totally hold up, and that the cost of insisting on this theory is the exclusion of a significant number of cis women from the category of woman altogether.

So, if we cannot look to experiences like menstruation and pregnancy as necessary conditions for counting as a woman, what other options might we have? Some radical feminist have looked to primary and secondary sex characteristics in order to define womanhood. Of course, this does not hold up to scrutiny as many trans women have vaginas, breasts, typically female hips, and other sex characteristics associated with women. As such, we cannot easily use sex characteristics to define a discrete group of women which would include cis women and exclude trans women. Of course many radical feminists argue that trans vaginas, breasts, and hips, are artificial and cannot be compared to those possessed by cis women. This objection requires providing a reason that “artificial” status is insufficient for inclusion in womanhood, and yet there is not one which can be easily provided. If trans women experience female embodiment in primary and secondary characteristics, who cares how they came to experience that embodiment?

Another way we could try to define “being female” and explore the grounding of “womanhood in biology” might be by looking to chromosomes. Some radical feminists point to XY or XX chromosomes as a fundamental way for distinguishing between male and female. Unfortunately, there is not good evidence that such an explanation holds up to scientific scrutiny.

In his article for the New Statesman, Ian Steadman argues that attribution of male or female sex to chromosomal differences is, “founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. His article makes several arguments against the chromosomal division of the sexes. First, chromosomal characteristics of XY or XX do not perfectly correspond to dimorphism of primary and secondary sex characteristics. Second, anomalies of chromosomal and sexual dimorphism are more common than we think (1 in 100). Third, sexed and gendered notions were imposed on observed chromosomal phenomena by early researchers of sex. Finally, chromosomal taxonomies ultimately reflect dominant social norms regarding gender. Read the article yourself for an extensive explanation of each of these points.

As such, it begins to look like we cannot find a discrete and unique group of females who share a “womanhood grounded in biology” because of the fact that neither an emphasis on experiences of mensturation and pregnancy, definitions based on primary and secondary sexual characteristics, nor a division of people into male and female based on chromosomes, can reveal to us such a discrete group.

Furthermore, the argument that these radical feminist critics make, that trans women do not experience embodied misogyny, is on face false. Trans women’s over-representation is sex work is a form of embodied labor which radical feminism has traditionally critiqued as misogynistic. Trans women face physical violence at the hands of strangers and lovers. This is embodied violent experiences of womanhood and misogyny. Trans women experience demands for the ideal female appearance, negative body image marketing, and a constant expectation that we doll up well enough for the male gaze. These are embodied experiences of misogyny we experience. And when we fail to meet these expectations, the result is often acute misogynist violence.

So why does this matter? If there is not a discrete and biologically unified group of people called females, who then share an experience of womanhood on the basis of being oppressed for their anatomy, it becomes untenable to argue that femaleness and biology are at the root of patriarchal oppression. We cannot then argue that the idea that there are males and females as two discrete and self contained groups is simply a natural fact which patriarchy takes advantage of to produce those who exploit and those who are exploited. Rather we must begin to look for another explanation for why some people under patriarchy are exploited women and others are exploiting men.

The Political Baggage of the Biological Explanation

I believe that I have demonstrated that the idea that we cannot uphold the idea that the notion of female as a discrete biological condition precedes patriarchy and explains the source of patriarchal oppress. My arguments so far have been related to the extent to which sex becomes an elusive and nonsensical category once we try to find a coherent definition of female embodiment. In this next section, I hope to argue that even if there is a coherent presocial female embodiment, appealing to this embodiment as an explanation for patriarchy carries political baggage we ought not take on.

One of the most important feminist theorists who rejects a biological and anatomical account of patriarchal oppression is Simone De Beauvoir. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir spends a significant amount of time addressing the way pregnancy, menstruation, and other aspects of anatomy which are traditionally referred as female become as site of oppression for women. Despite her careful attention to these experiences, Beauvoir ultimately concludes that biology cannot explain women’s oppression. Beauvoir writes:

The enslavement of the female to the species and the limitations of her various powers are extremely important facts; the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But that body is not enough to define her as woman; there is no true living reality except as manifested by the conscious individual through activities and in the bosom of a society. Biology is not enough to give an answer to the question that is before us: why is woman the Other? Our task is to discover how the nature of woman has been affected throughout the course of history; we are concerned to find out what humanity has made of the human female.

While Beauvoir takes the embodiment of women seriously, she does not argue that this embodiment is an explanation for women’s oppression. While a woman’s body is involved in the forms of marginalization and social violence she experiences, it is social activities and the lived social nature of human consciousness that becomes important for Beauvoir. Woman is not man’s other because she is physiologically different from him. We could, hypothetically, have physiological difference which do not get taken up, inevitably, into a social hierarchy. Thus the problem occurs not at the biological level but at the social level. For Beauvoir, something has been done to women to make them women. This is captured in her famous argument that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.” We need a theory which explains this process of becoming as a material sociopolitical phenomena, not a theory which assumes that sex and gender simply are self evident in the body.

Beauvoir explains further that:

[Humanity’s] ways and customs cannot be deduced from biology, for the individuals that compose the society are never abandoned to the dictates of their nature; they are subject rather to that second nature which is custom and in which are reflected the desires and the fears that express their essential nature. It is not merely as a body, but rather as a body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject is conscious of himself and attains fulfilment — it is with reference to certain values that he evaluates himself. And, once again, it is not upon physiology that values can be based; rather, the facts of biology take on the values that the existent bestows upon them.

Biological difference, anatomical variation, and biological reality, for Beauvoir, are not meaningful in and of themselves. Social values, norms, practices, and oppressions do not emerge from physiology, but rather, physiology is given meaning and value and used to justify oppression by a given society. This contests the idea that there are first females, that patriarchy emerges from a desire to oppress females, and that those oppressed by patriarchy form a coherent group of woman who’s “womanhood is grounded in biology.”

This reorientation from seeing biology as the source of social structures, to seeing biology as a thing which political and social meaning is imposed onto presents important political possibilities.

If patriarchy is a result of an impulse among men to oppress an anatomically discrete group of people called women, on the basis of their biology, then we end up in a difficult political situation. After all, for the radical feminists who hold this position, sex remains an immutable category (it must, otherwise “post-op” trans women would have to be considered women in their schema). But, if sex and anatomy are immutable and sex and anatomy are the cause for patriarchal social structures developing, then we can’t actually do anything to effect the structural roots of patriarchy. Patriarchy then emerges from an immutable and invariable anatomical reality which we are helpless to intervene in. Such a politics can only hope to offer a form of nihilistic ressentiment aimed at men. This analytic framework actually leads to a rather hopeless theory where we cannot clearly see how it is that feminists could overcome patriarchy outside of the elimination of the opposite sex (an obvious political impossibility). Thus, the baggage which the radical feminist theory of biology and repression carries with it is a tragic nihilistic determinism which naturalizes political divisions and leaves us without any clear path forward. Is it any wonder that contemporary radical feminist activism has failed to make systemic and structural change and has instead settled for policing the identities and expressions of trans women and sex workers? What else could this theory hope to produce?

On the other hand, if biology, sex, and anatomy are not the source of patriarchy; if they, in fact, take on meaning and become mapped out as discrete modes of categorization as a result of patriarchal oppression, then we have a way forward. If this conception of the relationship between biology and oppression is true, then we can overcome patriarchal oppression through systemic and structural political struggle against men as a class and against the material social conditions which create the exploitation of women, and retroactively apply social meaning to biology and anatomy as a justification for the exploitation of women.

If the radical feminist theory of biology leads to a sort of deterministic nihilism, this materialist account, in contrast, leads to a hopeful politics with the ability to create structural change, and to abolish and overthrow the conditions which produce the very notions of male and female. Perhaps you are willing to settle for deterministic nihilism, but for myself and most the feminists radicals I know, this is not an option. The baggage of the radical feminist position is simply too heavy and too cumbersome to be worth endorsing.

A Materialist Theory of Women’s Oppression

We have seen that sex and anatomy are not a coherent or meaningful basis for understanding a “womanhood grounded in biology.” We have seen that even if they were a coherent basis, the political baggage of attributing patriarchal oppression to these phenomena is not worth embracing. Thus, we are left with the task of providing an alternative explanation for patriarchal oppression. I have written on this previously, but hope to do some slightly more detailed and nuanced work here.

Those who are familiar with my work will not be surprised that in order to provide such a theory, I am turning to the work of french materialist feminist Monique Wittig. Sorry, but I’m a creature of habit (and Wittig remains underappreciated). Before I unpack this theory, I want to show my hand a bit, and admit that my explanation for why women are oppressed under patriarchal social systems is pretty simple: its arbitrary, and it could have been otherwise. Just as there is no discrete biological reality which makes one a proletariat or a member of the bourgeoisie (an exploited and an exploiter), so too is there no discrete biological reality which had to end in the exploitation of women by men. Both are, in a sense, grand historical accidents (in the sense that they are non-intentional) which are so entrenched and have existed for so long, that we take the divisions which result from them for granted.

Monique Wittig begins her ground breaking essay One Is Not Born a Woman with a simple but bold argument, “A materialist feminist approach to women’s oppression destroys the idea that women are a ‘natural group’: a racial group of a special kind, a group perceived as natural, a group of men considered as materially specific in their bodies.” Wittig starts at precisely the same point we have just discovered; with the realization that women are not a physiologically distinct group who’s distinction precedes patriarchal intervention.

Wittig, like Beauvoir, is not silent about women’s embodiment, however. She explains that, “We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extend that our deformed body is what they call ‘natural,’ what is supposed to exist as such before oppression.” For Wittig, there is an ideal of the naturally female body which patriarchy produces and expects women to conform to. Women distort themselves into this ideal because of a belief that this ideal reflects a natural and presocial physiological and anatomical reality. For Wittig, sex as a discrete physiological taxonomy emerges as a set of demands and justifications for patriarchy. It is not something that “exists as such before oppression.” Based on this analysis, Wittig concludes that “No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…”

Wittig also argues that an emphasis on the biological as a source of patriarchy that “most of the feminists and lesbian feminists in America” have adopted, actually ends up naturalizing and disguising the political and social constructedness of women’s oppression. She continues:

By doing this, by admitting that there is a ‘natural’ division between women and men, we naturalize history, we assume that ‘men’ and ‘women’ have always existed and will always exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible. For example, instead of seeing giving birth as a forced production, we see it as a ‘natural’ and ‘biological’ process, forgetting that in our societies births are planned, forgetting that we ourselves are programmed to produce children…

Wittig is essentially making the same points I have made earlier in this essay: a biological explanation naturalizes women’s oppression and gets rid of the possibility for liberation. It leads to a weak nihilism. So what does Wittig offer us instead? She explains, as an alternative theory, that, “A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact on the mark imposed by the oppressor: the ‘myth of woman’ plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women. Thus, this mark does not predate oppression…” And so, for Wittig, sexual difference, the idea of womanhood rooted in biology, the idea of being female as a discrete biological condition is an ideological justification for women’s oppression which mistakes the mark imposed by oppression for the cause of that oppression.

Wittig instead offers us a materialist account of women’s oppression. While rejecting the marxist feminist reduction of patriarchy to a byproduct of capitalism, Wittig turns to Marx’s historical materialist approach in order to provide a materialist account of women’s oppression. If Marx theorized society as being entirely built around the material and social relationship between worker and capitalist, then Wittig understands society as built around the material and social relationship between woman and man.

For Marx, it is the material conditions of capitalism which produce capitalist social values, ideas, and customs. The justifications for mistreatment of the poor (they’re lazy, they’re dumb, they haven’t worked hard enough) are all ideological justifications which are produced in order to reinforce a material base where capitalists exploit workers, and workers are made dependent on a wage from capitalists.

Similarly, for Wittig, the material conditions of patriarchal (heterosexual) society produce patriarchal values, ideas, and customs. The justifications for the mistreatment of women (they are biologically inferior, they are weaker, they are less good at reasoning, they are suited to the household) are all ideological justifications which are produced in order to reinforce a material base where men exploit women, and women are made dependent on social and sexual relationships with men.

In this retooled materialism, sexual difference is an ideological justification for the class domination of women by men. Sexual difference is an idea which is upheld, constructed, and enforced, because it makes male domination inevitable and stops women from rallying together against male class domination. As such, for Wittig, the task which materialist feminists must take up is, “to define what we call oppression in materialist terms, to make it evident that women are a class, which is to say that the category ‘woman’ as well as the category ‘man’ are political and economic categories, not eternal ones.” An alternative explanation of the relationship between biology and women’s oppression, then suggests that women are a class exploited by men, and that men uphold the ideology of biological and anatomical difference in order to make women think this class arrangement is an eternal one. Whats important for us feminists committed to radicalism is that these classes are not eternal.

So, under a materialist feminist theory we are not given an inevitable why for patriarchy. There is not some factor from which patriarchy naturally had to arise. Rather, patriarchy emerges just like all other forms of domination emerge, from the material forces of class struggle, economic change, and division of property and labor. Patriarchy did not have to exist, and does not have to exist. It can be overcome and we do not have to settle for the nihilism of biological determinism. Man and woman as classes can be abolished and eliminated. Patriarchy can be overcome, and when it is there will be no unified experience of “being female” or of a “womanhood grounded in biology.” When patriarchy is finally overcome we will realize that these ideas were simply ideology, paper tigers meant to make patriarchy look inevitable. Only such a materialist theory can be sufficient for giving us hope as feminists.