One Is Not Born a Woman, by Monique Wittig (1981)

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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.” What the analysis accomplishes on the level of ideas, practice makes actual at the level of facts: by its very existence, lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a “natural group.” A lesbian society pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been ideologically rebuilt into a “natural group.” In the case of women, ideology goes far since our bodies as well as our minds are the product of this manipulation. 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 extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea). What a materialist analysis does by reasoning, a lesbian society accomplishes practically: not only is there no natural group “women” (we lesbians are living proof of it), but as individuals as well we question “woman,” which for us, as for Simone de Beauvoir, is only a myth. She said: “one is not born, but becomes a woman. 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, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”

However, most of the feminists and lesbian-feminists in America and elsewhere still believe that the basis of women’s oppression is biological as well as historical. Some of them even claim to find their sources in Simone de Beauvoir. The belief in mother right and in a “prehistory” when women create civilization (because of a biological predisposition) while the coarse and brutal men hunted (because of a biological predisposition) is symmetrical with the biologizing interpretation of history produced up to now by the class of men. It is still the same method of finding in women and men a biological explanation of their division, outside of social facts. For me this could never constitute a lesbian approach to women’s oppression, since it assumes that the basis of society or the beginning of society lies in heterosexuality. Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy: it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes. Furthermore, not only is this conception still imprisoned in the categories of sex (woman and man), but it holds onto the idea that the capacity to give birth (biology) is what defines a woman. Although practical facts and ways of living contradict this theory in lesbian society, there are lesbians who affirm that “women and men are different species or races (the words are used interchangeably): men are biologically inferior to women; male violence is a biological inevitability…” 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,” “biological” process, forgetting that in our societies births are planned (demography), forgetting that we ourselves are programmed to produce children, while this is the only social activity “short of war” that presents such a great danger of death. Thus, as long as we will be “unable to abandon by will or impulse a lifelong and centuries-old commitment to childbearing as the female creative act,” gaining control of the production of children will mean much more than the mere control of the material means of this production: women will have to abstract themselves from the definition “woman” which is imposed upon them.

A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only 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: Colette Guillaumin has shown that before the socioeconomic reality of black slavery, the concept of race did not exist, at least not in its modern meaning, since it was applied to the lineage of families. However, now, race, exactly like sex, is taken as an “immediate given,” a “sensible given,” “physical features,” belonging to a natural order. But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an “imaginary formation,” which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as any others but marked by the social system) through the network of relationships in which they are perceived. (They are seen as black therefore they are black; they are seen as women, therefore, they are women. But before being seen that way, they first had to be made that way.) Lesbians should always remember and acknowledge how “unnatural,” compelling, totally oppressive, and destructive being “woman” was for us in the old days before the women’s liberation movement. It was a political constraint, and those who resisted it were accused of not being “real” women. But then we were proud of it, since in the accusation there was already something like a shadow of victory: the avowal by the oppressor that “woman” is not something that goes without saying, since to be one, one has to be a “real” one. We were at the same time accused of wanting to be men. Today this double accusation has been taken up again with enthusiasm in the context of the women’s liberation movement by some feminists and also, alas, by some lesbians whose political goal seems somehow to be becoming more and more “feminine.” To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man. Besides, if we take as an example the perfect “butch,” the classic example which provokes the most horror, whom Proust would have called a woman/ man, how is her alienation different from that of someone who wants to became a woman? Tweedledum and Tweedledee. At least for a woman, wanting to become a man proves that she has escaped her initial programming. But even if she would like to, with all her strength, she cannot become a man. For becoming a man would demand from a woman not only a man’s external appearance but his consciousness as well, that is, the consciousness of one who disposes by right of at least two “natural” slaves during his life span. This is impossible, and one feature of lesbian oppression consists precisely of making women out of reach for us, since women belong to men. Thus a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society.

The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man. This, we lesbians, and nonlesbians as well, knew before the beginning of the lesbian and feminist movement. However, as Andrea Dworkin emphasizes, many lesbians recently “have increasingly tried to transform the very ideology that has enslaved us into a dynamic, religious, psychologically compelling celebration of female biological potential.” Thus, some avenues of the feminist and lesbian movement lead us back to the myth of woman which was created by men especially for us, and with it we sink back into a natural group. Having stood up to fight for a sexless society, we now find ourselves entrapped in the familiar deadlock of “woman is wonderful.” Simone de Beauvoir underlined particularly the false consciousness which consists of selecting among the features of the myth (that women are different form men) those which look good and using them as a definition for women. What the concept “woman is wonderful” accomplishes is that it retains for defining women the best features (best according to whom?) which oppression has granted us, and it does not radically question the categories “man” and “woman,” which are political categories and not natural givens. It puts us in a position of fighting within the class “women” not as the other classes do, for the disappearance of our class, but for the defense of “woman” and its reinforcement. It leads us to develop with complacency “new” theories about our specificity: thus, we call our passivity “nonviolence,” when the main and emergent point for us is to fight our passivity (our fear, rather, a justified one). The ambiguity of the term “feminist” sums up the whole situation. What does “feminist” mean? Feminist is formed with the word “femme,” “woman,” and means: someone who fights for women. For many of us it means someone who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of this class. For many others it means someone who fights for woman and her defense– for the myth, then, and its reinforcement. But why was the word “feminist” chosen if it retains the least ambiguity? We chose to call ourselves “feminists” ten years ago, not in order to support or reinforce the myth of woman, nor to identify ourselves with the oppressor’s definition of us, but rather to affirm that our movement had a history and to emphasize the political link with the old feminist movement.

It is, then, this movement that we can put in question for the meaning that it gave to feminism. It so happens that feminism in the last century could never resolve its contradictions on the subject of nature/ culture, woman/ society. Women started to fight for themselves as a group and rightly considered that they shared common features as a result of oppression. But for them these features were natural and biological rather than social. They went so far as to adopt the Darwinist theory of evolution. They did not believe like Darwin, however, “that women were less evolved than men, but they did believe that male and female natures had diverged in the course of evolutionary development and that society at large reflected this polarization.” The failure of early feminism was that it only attacked the Darwinist charge of female inferiority, while accepting the foundations of this charge–namely, the view of woman as “unique.” And finally it was women scholars–and not feminists– who scientifically destroyed this theory. But the early feminists had failed to regard history as a dynamic process which develops from conflicts of interests. Furthermore, they still believed as men do that the cause (origin) of their oppression lay within themselves. And therefore after some astonishing victories the feminists of this first front found themselves at an impasse out of a lack of reasons to fight. They upheld the illogical principle of “equality in difference,” an idea now being born again. They fell back into the trap which threatens us once again; the myth of woman.

Thus it is our historical task, and only ours, 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. Our fight aims to suppress men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle. Once the class “men” disappears, “women” as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters. Our first task, it seems, is to always thoroughly dissociate “women”(the class within which we fight) and “woman,” the myth. For “woman” does not exist for us: it is only an imaginary formation, while “women” is the product of a social relationship. We felt this strongly when everywhere we refused to be called a “woman’s liberation movement.” Furthermore, we have to destroy the myth inside and outside ourselves. “Woman” is not each one of us, but the political and ideological formation which negates “women” (the product of a relation of exploitation). “Woman” is there to confuse us, to hide the reality “women.” In order to be aware of being a class and to become a class we first have to kill the myth of “woman” including its most seductive aspects (I think about Virginia Woolf when she said the first task of a woman writer is to kill “the angel in the house”). But to become a class we do not have to suppress our individual selves, and since no individual can be reduced to her/his oppression we are also confronted with the historical necessity of constituting ourselves as the individual subjects of our history as well. I believe this is the reason why all these attempts at “new” definitions of woman are blossoming now. What is at stake (and of course not only for women) is an individual definition as well as a class definition. For once one has acknowledged oppression, one needs to know and experience the fact that one can constitute oneself as a subject (as opposed to as object of oppression), that one can become someone in spite of oppression, that one has one’s own identity. There is no possible fight for someone deprived of an identity, no internal motivation for fighting, since, although I can fight only with others, first I fight for myself.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “One Is Not Born a Woman, by Monique Wittig (1981)

  1. MarySunshine

    I’ve never liked this.

    Some of her lesbian poetry is so beautiful – but that stuff above??!!

    Obfuscation.

  2. I agree with the idea that it is dangerous to celebrate our status as oppressed people by glorifying the myths that constitute women’s essential nature (as differentiated from glorifying particular characteristics traditionally *assigned* to women, but which characteristics are not *inherent* to our nature). HOWEVER, reproduction is an existential FACT. Sexless society sounds great, but nothing will change the FACT that only females can produce children. At some level we will have to account for that. It is a natural division of function that cannot be wished away.

    Thus it is our historical task, and only ours, 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.

    Women and men may be destroyed as political and economic categories, but sexual dimorphism is beyond human control.

    I don’t understand what is so confusing or difficult about ISOLATING reproductive functions– and reproductive functions ONLY– as the singular characteristic shared by female humans that would necessarily remain in an otherwise “sexless” society.

  3. MarySunshine

    It makes me wonder how she ever ended up as a Lesbian, and what that word meant to her.

    I can only imagine that Marxism so totally owned her analytical mind that for her female biology must be denied !!!! CLASS analysis reigns supreme.

    She “belongs” in feminist history as a tragic precursor to post-modernism, queer-ification, and tranziness.

    • Excellent, Mary. I agree– she conflates lesbianism and feminism. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.

      Also, the Marxism, yes. I think the material conditions of oppression MUST be articulated. But race and sex are not entirely analogous in terms of class “creation.”

      • It was interesting how you both interpreted her. When she wrote ‘Once the class “men” disappears, “women” as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters’, I interpreted that as reference to sex-class, not as implying that sex would no long matter.

        I also found her points rather more radical feminist than marxist in some ways. For instance, where she writes:

        “The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

        This strongly implies that women who aren’t actively heterosexual aren’t oppressed as women. (i.e. it denies female oppression that manifests beyond direct heterosexual relations.)

        Could you explain further your criticisms that if she is overlooking the importance of sex and reproduction, then she must be marxist? Marxism has traditionally focussed quite a lot on the importance of those issues and how they are used by powerful forces in various (male-dominated) class societies. And more recently, this is why abortion rights have been a major feminist concern for marxists.

        Also, from my observation, marxism has explained economic class oppression, racial oppression and female oppression as operating quite differently :-/

      • Hey, sorry for the delay in responding to you, Liberationislife. 🙂 I interpreted Marxism in Wittig’s philosophy because her focus is so much on the MATERIAL aspects of oppression. As you pointed out, a woman who is not actively heterosexual is still oppressed AS A WOMAN. Sure, I live a lesbian lifestyle, but that does NOT free me from the tyranny of woman hatred, sexual harassment, or intellectual dismissals based solely on my sex, etc, etc. I refuse male power in my home…and?? And I am STILL a woman and STILL oppressed on that basis. I can’t OPT OUT merely by refusing to be heterosexual. That idea is very reminiscent of I-dentity politics: gender is all in my head, I do it to myself and I can STOP doing it to myself by making the right choices–whoo!

        What I quoted from the article in an earlier comment is relevant to your question, I think:

        Thus it is our historical task, and only ours, 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.

        It is not clear whether Wittig means that SEX is not an eternal category, or whether she only means “gender” is not eternal and can *therefore* be destroyed. Obviously, it is a critical diff. And I disagree that gender can be destroyed by focusing solely on materialist terms. The concepts of masculinity and femininity are so deeply embedded in our collective subconscious and tightly woven into our daily interactions that we continue to RESPOND to gender even when we are actively trying NOT to. Even when men and women are doing the SAME work with the SAME results, the male’s performance will be valued more highly, etc, etc.

      • Here’s another one criticizing the idea that female oppression could be related to anything BUT human constructs that must be destroyed:

        …there are lesbians who affirm that “women and men are different species or races (the words are used interchangeably): men are biologically inferior to women; male violence is a biological inevitability…” 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.

        NO. Noooooo!!! There *is* a natural, body-based division between males and females: reproduction ala sexual dimorphism. This difference does not dictate our behavior, desires, or preferences. But it is not also NOT under human control. This is what I mean about ISOLATING reproduction as the ONLY sex-based difference that would continue to be relevant in a “sex-less” society. I don’t understand why this is so hard for some women to conceptualize. I really don’t. It pisses me off, actually, because it’s so EASY. Why are we even questioning the REALITY of sex?? UGH. What a waste of time.

  4. It’s funny because Wittig combines two problems that exist within too different kinds of feminist groups: those that call themselves materialist feminists, where the only thing that counts is marxist class analysis at the complete disregard of reproductive reality and the way men use reproduction as the primary tool of our oppression (although class analysis is important, forgetting reproduction/sex role issues misses the whole point of feminism);

    and the so-called “lesbian radicals” who conflate lesbianism with feminism (or say that we don’t need feminism, only lesbianism) and in the same breath, claim not to be women. Which doesn’t make sense (why would they be lesbian then if they’re not women?) and is incredibly misogynistic because the reason they dissociate from women is because they conflate women with “person fucked by men” and internalise men’s victim blaming for rape.

    And you’re spot on Mary, Witting is actually largely re-used today by queer and PM people who promote further dissociation from anything female and assimilation to everything male and masculine / patriarchal.

  5. rainsinger

    I don’t understand what is so confusing or difficult about ISOLATING reproductive functions– and reproductive functions ONLY– as the singular characteristic shared by female humans that would necessarily remain in an otherwise “sexless” society.

    I *understand* where women who argue this are coming from, although dont agree with it.

    It was the times, the era, the generation etc. First generation to have any control, no matter how limited or restricted or conditional it was/is, over reproduction — and after generations upon generations of enforced motherhood, it did feel like “freedom”. Feminist theory also had strong historical roots in the traditions of marxism and socialism – liberate women from the ‘tyranny of reproduction’ (as working-class is to be liberated from the ‘tyranny of production’) and the nuclear family and hey presto, you will have “equality”. Also, in the post-war period was the very first strong. critiques of the centuries, upon centuries, of patriarchal academic verbal diarrhoea on the ‘Nature of Woman’ defining Her as a purely biological creature whose only purpose in existing was reproduction, and all biological processes to do with any of it was disgusting, animal-like and just plain Not-Human. An idea, or concept that is deeply internalised in all, not just male, but females too.

    I believe a number of early feminist theorists quite understandably rejected ALL of the biology, along with the ‘gender roles’, in their theory and analysis. Some still do, and get upset in saying stuff like if you start defining women-as-a-class by biology, you are just doing the same thing as all the patriarchal theorists have done for centuries in defining women as biological entities, and hence, therfore, ergo — are just giving ammunition to all the misogynistic Freudians and ‘essentialists’ of this world.

    Since the idea of female biology as disgusting and animal-like is so deeply internalised, these feminists couldn’t separate out the differences between the biology (which just *is*), and its social status, or social ‘meaning’ as constructed by the age-old patriarchal mind-fucks. So they rejected the biology, as being just as oppressive, as the social gender constructs surrounding it.

    Shulamith Firestone and Marge Piercy have immortalised this whole idea in their writings, in saying that the only way women-as-a-class can be “free”, or “equal” or “human”, is to lose the biology altogether, and be biologically reconstructed somehow, eg using extra-uterine artifical reproductive technologies.

    So rather then reconstruct society, it was easier to reconstruct females out of existence from the Human Condition. Which is why so many post-mods love these particular writers, and even some more recent reincarnations like Judith Butler.

    If you will forgive the pun, methinx such feminist theorists –
    “threw the baby out with the bathwater”.

  6. MarySunshine

    😀 ==> Bess and Rain

  7. Anornae

    Gender=not real.
    Not having a preference for men OR women- or not having a greater preference for one or the other- does not affect SEX.

    You are female or you are male. “Inter”sex is the exception not the rule, and so to use it for argument is resorting to exceptional-ism. No go.

    Either you are a member of the impregnable class, or you are not. Males assigned at birth (MABs) are *not*.

    Twanzies are not intersex, but they exploit those who are by pretending to be. Time to find the compass here, or just mindfuck yourself. Either way.

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