Essentialism vs. Nonessentialism
by Sam Gottlieb

Over the course of our various discussions, our group has wondered repeatedly if there is a means to find an all-encompassing, positive, and constructive language for feminists and non feminists alike. We hoped to find a way to connect, rather than separate, the experiences which women from all classes, races, and cultures could embrace. Yet, even in the word choice of "women" we encounter problems.

When trying to break down this question of word choice and definitions, we fall back onto the familiar dissent between whether to incorporate an essentialist or constructionist attitude. In this case, I define essentialism as an innate, biological, and psychological experience of woman. Janis Bohan defines essentialism as, "gender as resident within the individual, a quality or trait describing one*s personality, cognitive process, moral judgment, etc." Essentialism sees woman as a universal category which stretches across class, race, culture, and historical variables. Constructionism, again according to Bohan, is "the argument that gender is not a trait of individuals at all, but simply a construct that identifies..." and Bohan sees this perspective as "gender is not resident in the person." I feel that it's important to include more than gender in our discussion. This is problematic, I realize, but in our notion of spirituality and mind-body connection, we see the person as a varying identity.

Our argument is neither essentialist nor constructionist. We find ourselves borrowing many essentialist perspectives, but the problem with any essentialist argument is its delineation among groups and division among people. This word, people, seems to be our safest category, but even within this category, there seems to be a wealth of discrepancies. Look at the person sitting next to you. Undeniably, she comes from an experience unique and distinct from your own.

Rosaria Champagne, in her article "Feminism, Essentialism, and Historical Context," discusses the feminist movement in the 1970s as, "Woman is a category and that women although different and separate... all share a culturally degraded status." The movement has since altered itsy position because of all the conflicts in such a statement. And yet, in spite of the fact that we recognize these conflicts, we must ask ourselves about this aspect of experience. Walking down the street, we are woman, and we find ourselves treated as such. Why? Because of our physical identities. True, we are not all "stereotypically feminine," we do not all dress in the culturally accepted women*s clothing, but this experience of being identified by our body is a common one, although not a universal one.

Essentialism is dangerous because of its limitations. Gayatri Spivak points out that essentialism is neither "good" nor "bad," but that it weakens any individual's arguments and perspective if she is immediately pinned down by her biological or quintessential "female way of knowing." Essentialism may dismiss or discredit an individual, but we believe there are redeeming qualities in embracing this identity and experience of woman. Betty Friedan emphasizes that, "tactics and strategy,...must be firmly based in the historical, biological, economic, and psychological reality of our two-sexed world (12)." We must have a starting place for creating new values and attitudes in our society, and we cannot ignore this reality of which Friedan speaks.

Janis Bohan, in contrast, champions constructionism over essentialism because she believes that constructionism celebrates diversity, whereas essentialism denies our multidimensional traits and experiences. She does not allow for essentialism to be a celebration of our facets, instead she sees it as limiting. However, I do not find that constructionism allows for the "experience" aspect of identity. It seems that such an attitude strips away the possibility for finding diversity through essentialism. To me, essentialism does not mean one mind, one experience, or one body. Instead, it allows for the framework from which to branch out. Overall, I believe Denise Riley*s statement that, "'the body' is not for all its corporeality an originating point nor yet a terminus (102)." The body is not simply "corporeality" but a component of identity. We cannot negate that our every day interactions and experiences are mediated through our physical existence as much as our mental ones.

Denying ourselves a means for sharing and learning does not seem productive. I believe in the subjective experience and the choice of self-identifying. Demonizing essentialism demonizes those who choose to embrace the category of woman. When feminists point out constraints and oppression through gendered and sexist constructs such as motherhood, Friedan responds with what I believe is one of the more crucial points -- the freedom to choose these roles and responsibilities. What we look to achieve is this freedom, so that we may erradicate the negative connotations of characteristics we believe to be positive and remarkable.

This argument which founds itself on the self, the individual, may not challenge your notion of identity, and it certainly does not provide a solution to the problems inherent in the bigger, social, and cultural context. Yet we see, through embracing spirituality and our physical entities, a means to find the strength and power to make our choice. I have attempted to set up a framework from which to approach our presentation. We hope that you will take these notions of woman, identity, and experience and incorporate it into the various topics we present to you. This argument has been a building block, and it is from this understanding that we delve into a diverse consideration of myth, religion, and menstruation.

Our presentation asks you to keep an open mind, but to also experience these topics conscious of your own history and experiences growing up as girl and becoming an adult person.

Religion and stories provide a cultural and historical perspective from where our identities and experiences stem. What we offer to you is highly subjective. It is a problem that the luxuries we have well-educated people color our perspective. Our circumstances as late twentieth-century young adults from the United States also alters the potential we perceive in the essentialist argument. But we hope that even if not everything we suggest holds true for you, that we can offer something new or useful for every person in the room.

Sam's email address is:,
and you can also go check out her own web page.

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