Gender essentialism is a concept used to examine the attribution of fixed, intrinsic, innate qualities to women and men. In this theory, there are certain universal, innate, biologically- or psychologically-based features of gender (different from sex) that are at the root of observed differences in the behavior of men and women. In Western civilization, it is suggested in writings going back to ancient Greece.:1 With the advent of Christianity, the earlier Greek model was expressed in theological discussions as the doctrine that there are two distinct sexes, male and female created by God, and that individuals are immutably one or the other. This view remained essentially unchanged until the middle of the 19th century. This changed the locus of the origin of the essential differences, in Sandra Bem's words, "from God's grand creation [to] its scientific equivalent: evolution's grand creation," but the belief in an immutable origin had not changed.:2
Alternatives to gender essentialism were proposed in the mid-20th century. During second-wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir and other feminists in the 1960s and 70s theorized that gender differences were socially constructed. In other words, people gradually conform to gender differences through their experience of the social world. More recently, Judith Butler theorized that people construct gender by performing it.
In feminist theory and gender studies, gender essentialism is the attribution of a fixed essence to women. Women's essence is assumed to be universal and is generally identified with those characteristics viewed as being specifically feminine. These ideas of femininity are usually related to biology and often concern psychological characteristics such as nurturance, empathy, support, non-competitiveness, etc. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz states in her 1995 publication, Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies, that essentialism "entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times. It implies a limit of the variations and possibilities of change—it is not possible for a subject to act in a manner contrary to her essence. Her essence underlies all the apparent variations differentiating women from each other. Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristic, given attributes, and ahistorical functions that limit the possibilities of change and thus of social reorganization."
Furthermore, biologism is a particular form of essentialism that defines women's essence in terms of biological capacities. This form of essentialism is based on a form of reductionism, meaning that social and cultural factors are the effects of biological causes. Biological reductivism "claim[s] that anatomical and physiological differences—especially reproductive differences—characteristic of human males and females determine both the meaning of masculinity and femininity and the appropriately different positions of men and women in society". Biologism uses the functions of reproduction, nurturance, neurology, neurophysiology, and endocrinology to limit women's social and psychological possibilities according to biologically established limits. It asserts the science of biology to constitute an unalterable definition of identity, which inevitably "amounts to a permanent form of social containment for women". Naturalism is also a part of the system of essentialism where a fixed nature is postulated for women through the means of theological or ontological rather than biological grounds. An example of this would be the claim that women's nature is a God-given attribute, or the ontological invariants in Sartrean existentialism or Freudian psychoanalysis that distinguish the sexes in the "claim that the human subject is somehow free or that the subjects social position is a function of his or her genital morphology". These systems are used to homogenize women into one singular category and to strengthen a binary between men and women.
The official view of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons; LDS) is an essentialist belief in gender. The 1995 LDS statement, The Family: A Proclamation to the World states the official view, and declares gender to be an "essential characteristic" of sons and daughters of God, and an "eternal identity." Mormon people generally believe in an eternal life, and that it would be impossible for one's eternal gender to be different from one's physical, birth sex. Church regulations permit, but don't mandate, ex-communication for those who choose sexual reassignment surgery, and deny them membership in the priesthood.
The main alternative to gender essentialism is the theory of the social construction of gender. In contrast to gender essentialism, which views differences between men and women as innate, universal, and immutable, social constructionism views gender as created and influenced by society and culture, which differ according to time and place, with roles societally defined as appropriate for a person of a given sex becoming the standard against which members of that sex are measured. Theories of the social construction of gender grew out of theories in second-wave feminism in the latter half of the 20th century.
Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity can be seen as a means to show "the ways in which reified and naturalized conceptions of gender might be understood as constituted and, hence, capable of being constituted differently". Butler uses the phenomenological theory of acts espoused by Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead, which seeks to explain the mundane way in which "social agents constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign", to create her conception of gender performativity. She begins by quoting Simone de Beauvoir's claim:
"...one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman."
This statement distinguishes sex from gender suggesting that gender is an aspect of identity that is gradually acquired. This distinction between sex, as the anatomical aspects of the female body, and gender, as the cultural meaning that forms the body and the various modes of bodily articulation, means that it is "no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity". Butler interprets this claim as an appropriation of the doctrine of constituting acts from the tradition of phenomenology. Butler concludes that "gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self".
Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker also conceptualize gender "as a routine, methodical, and ongoing accomplishment, which involves a complex of perceptual, interactional and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of manly and womanly 'natures'" in their 1995 text Doing Difference.
This does not mean that the material nature of the human body is denied, instead, it is re-comprehended as separate from the process by which "the body comes to bear cultural meanings". Therefore, the essence of gender is not natural because gender itself is not a natural fact but the outcome of the sedimentation of specific corporeal acts that have been inscribed through repetition and rearticulation over time onto the body. "If the reality of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized 'sex' or 'gender' which gender performances ostensibly express".
Analyzing gender has been a concern of feminist theory. There have been many modes of understanding how gender addresses meaning, but developing such theories of gender can obscure the significance of other aspects of women's identities, such as race, class, and sexual orientation, which marginalizes the experiences and voices of women of colour, non-Western women, working-class women, queer women, and trans women. As a challenge to feminist theory, essentialism refers to the problem of theorizing gender as both an identity and a mark of difference. This refers to a problem for the concept of subjectivity presupposed by feminist theories of gender. There are arguments primarily by black and lesbian feminists that feminist theory has capitalized on the idea of gender essentialism by using the category of gender to appeal to "women's experience" as a whole. By doing this, feminist theory makes universalizing and normalizing claims for and about women, which are only true of white, Western, heterosexual, cisgender, middle- or upper-class women, but which it implies are situations, perspectives and experiences true of all women. Patrice DiQuinzio discusses "how critics of exclusion see this as a function of feminist theory's commitment to theorizing gender exclusively and articulating women's experiences in terms of gender alone". Instead one must theorize feminism in a way that takes the interlocking category of experiences between race, class, gender, and sexuality into consideration; an intersectional model of thinking.
Some feminists, such as DiQuinzio and Nancy Chodorow, have used the idea of a woman's essence to link gender socialization with exclusively female mothering. Butler disagreed, because not all women are mothers, due to age or personal choice, and even some mothers do not regard motherhood as the most important aspect of political struggle.
Furthermore, the essentialism of gender in feminist theory presents a problem when understanding transfeminism. Instead of understanding trans studies as another subsection or subjectivity to be subsumed under the category of "woman", we understand the task of trans studies to be "the breaking apart of this category, particularly if that breaking requires a new articulation of the relation between sex and gender, male and female". Trans subjectivity challenges the binary of gender essentialism as it disrupts the "fixed taxonomies of gender" and this creates a resistance in women's studies, which as a discipline has historically depended upon the fixedness of gender. Trans identities break down the very possibility of gender essentialism by queering the binary of gender, gender roles and expectations. In recent years, through the work of transfeminists such as Sandy Stone, the theory of trans women and their inclusion into feminist spaces has opened, just as theories of race, class, sexuality and ability did.
Social categories such as gender are often essentialized by not only adults but children, as young children have been shown to display essentialist beliefs about gender preferences and indications. Proponents of gender essentialism propose that children from the age of 4 to 10 show the tendency to endorse the role of nature in determining gender-stereotyped properties, an "early bias to view gender categories as predictive of essential", which gradually declines as they pass elementary school years. Another indicator of gender essentialism in child development is how they begin to employ essentialist manifestation as a tool for reasoning and perceiving gender stereotyping from as young as 24 months.
Poststructuralism indicates "a field of critical practices that cannot be totalized and that, therefore, interrogate the formative and exclusionary power of sexual difference", says Butler. Therefore, through the poststructuralist lens, the critique of gender essentialism is possible because poststructuralist theory generates analyses, critiques, and political interventions, and opens up a political imaginary for feminism that is otherwise constrained. Feminist poststructuralism does not designate a position from which one operates, but offers a set of tools and terms to be "reused and rethought, exposed as strategic instruments and effects, and subjected to a critical reinscription and redeployment".