On the Being of Female People

So, one of my recent pieces attracted a fairly long piece of critique. I’m not going to respond to the whole thing, but there was a couple of points I thought it might be interesting to get into  – mostly because they touch on stuff I’ve been turning over in general…


Criticism the first: I don’t understand how binaries work

“Jones touches on the erasure necessary to binary oppositions, but fails to grasp what it actually means.”

Okay, so… let’s kick things off with the assertion that I don’t really get what ‘erasure’ means with respect to binaries (ho ho, rightbackatcha). I’ve spent about 15 years thinking about it, but… fair enough, if you’re then going to display your infinitely greater understanding….

“Binaries are bad not just because they’re hierarchical, but because they deny everything outside those hierarchical categories.”

This ‘not just’ is a pretty massive tell… because, as we’ll get on to, packed inside it is basically the whole structure by which female people are oppressed/erased as female people…so yeah, no biggie. Evidently, not granting existence to female people isn’t really very important. What is far more important is that binaries don’t represent multiplicity correctly. This point is half right, but the elaboration is kind of scuppered by the fact that my critic doesn’t quite understand how binaries work…

“If the binary insists that everyone is either X or Y, and that X is superior to Y, then insisting that X people and Y people are naturally different but equal might be a slight improvement, but it doesn’t get any closer to dealing a reality where some people might be X in some ways and Y in others, or might indeed be A, B, C, gamma or theta. To “insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference” – so, saying that some people are European, and others are African, and both are equally good – is still to reproduce the erasures imposed by colonialism. It obviously doesn’t offer much to, say, Asians or indigenous Australians, but even just talking about Africans, to group them together as “the other pole” is still to deny the existence and diversity of pre-colonial-binary identities.”

Okay… so a binary isn’t ‘X or Y.’ As I’ve said, binaries work by being both a) hierarchical and b) by defining the ‘inferior’ term by negation. A binary isn’t constituted as ‘X or Y,’ it’s constituted as ‘X and not-X.’ ‘European’ vs. ‘African’ is not a binary. The racial binary is constructed by white supremacy, and conceptually it functions around the contradiction, ‘white/not-white.’ So, to look at a specific instance, ‘Blackness’ is constituted by the white imagination as an inversion of the privileged qualities of ‘whiteness.’ (Particularly in this case, ‘civilized vs. not-civilized (primitive)’, ‘rational (mind) vs. not-rational (emotional, sensual, embodied), ‘human vs. not-human (animal).’

This whole thing gets into a right mess here, however, because the gender binary and racial binaries don’t map exactly onto each other. The gender binary is laid on top of the biological difference between male and female people. The racial binary isn’t actually one thing, because the ‘white/not-white’-structure functions in reality as a conceptual relation between ‘whiteness’ and various different ‘types’ of ‘non-whiteness.’ Therefore, you can’t make a straight analogy here.[1] The structure of the gender binary is harmful because it is hierarchical, and because it ties sexed bodies to certain types of acceptable social behaviours, but if we follow through on the analogy used here, what we get is the claim that the ‘real’ harm of the gender binary is that it erases the other ‘natural’ differences it’s laid on top of – i.e. that it erases the people who are neither male or female, which would be, actually, nobody.[2]

Gender Binary

Racial Binary/ies

Conceptual structure Masculine/Not-masculine White/Not-white
Biological difference Male/Not-male (i.e. female) White/Everyone who is not white (with specific contextual significations depending on different types of ‘not-white’)

Racial binaries are also built on far more culturally determined differences because race, unlike sex, is: a) much more spectrum-like b) capable of hybridization and c) what counts as ‘not-white’ is not only a matter of biological features, e.g. Irish, Italians and Latinos of predominantly ‘white’ heritage in the US.

What this confused analogy serves to do then, is to side-step the fact that the principle harm of the gender binary is that it functions to define female people as the negative image of male people, and removes female people’s cultural power to define themselves for themselves. (Which is not to say that there would be a singular definition of what ‘being female’ means to female people, were they to be able to get on with the job of creating their own signification (which we do do, in community with other women, to some degree, although, as we’ll see, nobody seems to much notice…)).

Moreover, to say that female people having the cultural power to define themselves would only be a “slight improvement” in the situation is a frickin joke. Male people ceasing to define female people in their own terms and through their own projections would be the end of patriarchy. What my critic fails to grasp here then, is that the harm of ‘not representing diversity’ in the negatively defined group is itself a product of the mechanism of projective definition – because defining something by inversion necessarily flattens the perception of variation into the uniformity of ‘not-x.’ It is, therefore, ultimately a product of the narcissism of patriarchal masculinity, and it is this structure of patriarchal inversion which was then repeated in the construction of the racial binary (or racial binaries). If you solve the problem of narcissistic patriarchal inversion, you then also solve the problem of the flattening of diversity in general. However, and this is key, my claim would be that the greatest challenge to that narcissistic structure comes from the irreducibility of sexual difference. The issue with ‘multiplicity’ or ‘diversity’ as a simple remedy to patriarchal narcissism is that it very easily collapses into a type of ‘inclusivity’ which tries to include everything inside a new kind of ‘one-ness.’ That is, my wariness about the idea that ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity’ is a de facto good in all circumstances is very much related to my sense that it is informed by the desire to obviate the much harder work of actually learning how to relate across difference. That is, ‘inclusivity’ is animated by the patriarchal narcissistic impulse to collapse all difference back into sameness (while looking like it’s doing something to undermine it, and actually not).

“Of course, Jones could object that she actually wants “to spend a lot of time thinking through what [colonised people] are”, and that this effort would really mean understanding and respecting the full range and complexity of these identities.”

Woah there. First off, it’s pretty telling that you’re conducting this entire critique using the example of race, rather than sex, because as I’ve suggested, they don’t map exactly onto each other. Secondly, I would never make the statement you have put into my mouth there with your parenthetical sleight of hand. It is not my work to ‘spend a lot of time thinking about what colonised people are.’ Creating signification for themselves is the work of people who have been negatively defined by white power – which they have always been doing pretty spectacularly – and the work of using those significations to challenge dominant definitions is also theirs. This is fucking obvious.

“but if we’re talking about pre/non-colonial cultures, then again we’re back to social categories, not biological differences. And again, in such a case we’d be looking at a range of social identities that don’t fit neatly within a binary, which in turn sounds an awful lot like the dreaded “trans ideology”.

Firstly, as I’ve said, if you understood how binaries work, you’d understand that all of the variations are subsumed by the binary, because the ‘not-x’ covers everything that is not-x. In the case of the ‘not-white’ of the racial binary, that includes a ton of variation (and how it functions specifically depends on the particular context in which it is deployed i.e. the ‘white/not-white’ structure signifies differently when applied to say, white American/African-Americans than it does to white-Americans/Latino Americans. The crucial point, however, is that in both cases, the non-white group is defined by negation of the white group). In the case of the gender-binary it refers to the cultural meanings attached to female people (and the policing of femininity in male people arises from trying to ensure that the characteristics of the ‘inferior’ class don’t manifest in the ‘dominant’ class). And secondly, yes, the definitions of racial categories are more social than sexual difference. That’s also why you’re using that example rather than sexual difference isn’t it? Glad we’ve cleared that up.

Criticism the second: I believe in ‘eternal feminine essence’

“Jones goes on to assert that “It is, in fact, the existence of sexual difference that serves as the basis for resisting the patriarchal binary, because it is the existence of sexual difference which grounds the claim that the female has its own being, outside the definition imposed upon it by patriarchal opposition.”

We can agree that to resist the patriarchal binary, there needs to be something outside it, but for this something to be “the female… being” we’d need a bit more clarity about what that actually is. If it’s just physical difference, then I’m unconvinced that simply stating that some people have wombs is going to do that much to bring down the patriarchy; but if we’re talking about something beyond simple physical difference, claiming that “the female being” is some kind of eternal feminine that exists outside of patriarchal categories, then it seems like Jones has arrived at the conclusion that gender essentialism is actually good now, which sets her drastically at odds with the feminist tradition – when 1970s women’s lib marchers raised slogans like “biology is not woman’s destiny”, should they in fact have been telling the world “actually, biology is women’s destiny, but a slightly different one from what patriarchy says it is”?”

So, this is actually interesting, and it raises some issues we get into rather a lot on our own side. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not a matter of simply stating that some humans are of the sex-class capable of bearing young (I’m not going with ‘having wombs’ (or vaginas even – given the LostVaginaSongs hilarity over the nonsense efforts to undermine the existence of female people)). What it is a matter of is asserting the importance of female people producing their own definitions, and their own cultural significations, for themselves. It should be obvious that this isn’t an assertion of ‘eternal feminine essence,’ but it seems it’s really not. Here it is actually instructive to look at the parallels with race. It is evidently the case that ‘Blackness’ is not only a category constructed by whiteness, but is also a culturally meaningful term to Black people, and is imbued with cultural significations coming out of Black culture (and here there’s issues of the fact that there is not only one ‘Black culture,’ but, nonetheless, there are meaningful cultural histories, tropes, practices and narratives there). When one of my fellow Prince scholars writes something critiquing the way white culture elides Prince’s blackness, or commenting on the way Under the Cherry Moon is a self-conscious performance of Prince’s blackness, do I read him as claiming that there is an ‘eternal Black essence’? Yeah no, I don’t. And neither does anyone else. And it’s worth thinking about why that is.

This also touches on the question we ourselves keep getting snagged up in. I have repeatedly claimed that I consider ‘female’ to be a biological category, and that I consider ‘woman’ to be a biological/cultural composite. When I make that claim, many feminists I am allied with understand the ‘cultural’ dimension to refer only to the definition of ‘woman’ given by patriarchal culture – that is, to ‘patriarchal femininity’ or ‘gender’ in the feminist sense. And, to return to the origins of our own tradition in Beauvoir, it is indeed the case that that constitutes by far the largest part of what ‘woman’ currently means, and that this mechanism of the cultural definition of female people by male people, is, as I’ve suggested above, the central cultural operation of patriarchy. The place where I depart from a straight-forward gender-abolitionist account is that I think we are cultural creatures, and I don’t think the abolition of patriarchal gender would consist of there being no cultural meaning attached to sexed-bodies. I think rather it would consist of a culture in which the meaning of female bodies – and the forms of social life occupied by female bodies – was defined by female people.[3]

That this possibility is not even heard, by both allies and critics, is evidence, I think, of the absolute dominance of masculine signification. We recognise that an assertion of ‘Blackness’ by a Black artist isn’t an assertion of ‘eternal Black essence’ because we recognise that there is Black culture. That we don’t recognise the same thing with respect to a claim about female people signifying the ‘being of female people’ is evidence of nothing so much as the absence of women’s culture, or rather, the extent to which there is relatively little recognition, even among ourselves, of what that culture is, and/or would be. We have had half a century in which feminist women have variously worked at creating, and curating, and narrating that culture. We have poems and plays and songs and the recovered histories of our foremothers. Some of us name ourselves witches, and place ourselves deliberately in a somewhat mythic maternal genealogy with the women who were burned before us. And yet, when I talk about the ‘being of female people’ outside the terms of masculine definition, when I suggest that the whole structure would be utterly upended if female people had the power of signifying their own being, it apparently signifies nothing.

And that, if we think hard about it, tells us pretty much the whole tale.


[1] You could, at a push, argue that the ‘real’ problem with the racial binary is that it flattens the differences between various types of ‘non-whiteness’ – although given that these binaries actually function in specific contexts, I’d still be a little skeptical. What this would amount to then is something like the claim that the ‘real’ problem with the negative construction of ‘Blackness’ is that is doesn’t include Latino/as, and I suspect African-Americans might have some thoughts about that.

[2] I imagine what this person is actually driving at is that the gender binary is bad because it erases the multiplicity of possible gender presentations. They don’t quite get at this using the analogy they’re using for the reasons I’ve suggested…race is a much more social category than sex, the meaning of racial groups isn’t laid on top of such clear biological differences, and there is a multiplicity of those groups in a way there is not in the case of sexual difference. Anyway, to be charitable, let’s just scrap the analogy and take the claim as, ‘the gender binary is bad not only because it is a hierarchy but because it erases multiple gender presentations.’ In that case I’m going to agree. I’m not going to agree with the more-or-less explicit attempt to hand-wave away the hierarchical aspect as something to not get too worked up about…and to a certain extent, contained in this is a kernel of the whole conflict – people who conceive their oppression to reside in the social policing of their gender presentation vs. people who conceive their oppression to stem from gender as a social hierarchy imposed on sexed bodies. However, yes, the gender binary is also bad because of the way it ties certain social and gender performances to sexed bodies. Our claim is that the way to deal with that is not to try and abolish the recognition of sexual difference, but to abolish the system of patriarchal gender. It is further my claim that the way you do that is by allowing female people to signify their being for themselves. And the reason for this is because, as I’ve been suggesting, patriarchal gender functions by a process of inverting masculine narcissism, which cannot allow female people to signify for themselves. That is, if we had what Irigaray calls ‘a culture of sexual difference,’ that would, necessarily, be something completely other to a system of patriarchal gender – a system in which there would be far more fluidity in the types of acceptable expression, because there would be no binary.

[3] It seems that the confusion arises here because what I mean by ‘the being of female people’ is both the recognition that female people exist, and the recognition that female people get to define and elaborate what ‘being female’ means (and to be clear, it would hopefully turn out that what ‘being female’ means would involve rejecting a great deal of what it currently means, and resignifying most of what is left). That is, ‘the being of female people’ is both biological and cultural, because anything we might be able to say about what it means, is, necessarily, cultural. Because it is cultural, that doesn’t mean, however, that just anyone gets to define it. The importance of sexual difference, and the recognition of sexual difference, is precisely about the culture that would be created if female people were given the power of their own signification (which would be, effectively, the biological/cultural composite of ‘woman’ being defined by female people). While the meaning of ‘Blackness’ is cultural, there is still a massive political and cultural difference between ‘Blackness’ defined by white people in binary opposition to whiteness, and ‘Blackness’ as defined by Black people in their own terms. (And note here, when I use ‘Blackness’ here as a binary other of ‘whiteness’ I am referring to a specific application of the binary which refers to the relationship between African-American and white American culture).



  1. This is so good, thank you.
    “…the much harder work of actually learning how to relate across difference.”
    I think this is the crux. So much social justice work has involved eliding difference, because those who are oppressed are dehumanised (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”). So there is confusion around whether there can be significant differences between groups of humans.
    I’ve always loved Judy Grahn for her being able to conceive of “female” as something other than “another kind of male” (similarly, though not immediately relevant, “homosexual” as something other than “another kind of heterosexual”). And she created mythologies that, to me, point to what women’s own signification might look like – in all its carnality. (I sometimes fantasise about what queer theory might be if Grahn’s had become the mumbo-jumbo of choice, rather than that of the French post-er boys.)
    Relating to, “the importance of female people producing their own definitions,” I remember the shock of first realising that “sex-positive” feminists were accepting the definition of “sex” whole-hog from our culture/society – which is the heart of the problem. But you do a wonderful job of articulating this, so, again, thanks.

    1. Yes, this is exactly it… it is a question of elaborating a meaning of female which is not just ‘another kind of male’ or actually ‘a deficient inverted image of a male.’ I think one of the difficulties we get into here – and you point to it with the reference to ‘carnality,’ also a very important word for Irigaray – is about the working through the relation between body and mind, about what the cultural meaning of embodied being *is*, about how that sits inside a re-signification of the binary… ‘woman’ has be constructed as ‘matter’ or ‘body’ as the inverse of masculine mind…and so there is, on the one hand an impulse to reject that positing. I have always understood the sexual difference tradition to be arguing that that is simply to stay inside a patriarchal inversion…and the work is really to elaborate a form of ‘body/mind’ being…to expand into the larger philosophical point, elaborating ‘women’s culture’ is the work of mapping a culture that could exist entirely outside of phallic binaries… the work of creating a culture of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’…of real differences, that are always related, but not the same…

      And this point about sex-positivity is exactly right. What the third wave has done is simply taken the objectified performance of female sexuality as defined by the male gaze and sold it back to women as empowerment. Real female pleasure looks nothing like that – it’s not passive, it’s not particularly ‘pretty,’ it’s a boundary shattering wave that looks, from the perspective of masculine desire, like something destructive. There was a lot of elaboration of this in the second wave, and the power of female pleasure to shake up the very system of opposition itself… but it’s all been lost in the third wave caricature (which so transparently serves the interests of reinscribing male power by separating women from the knowledge of their mothers – same old same old). Weirdly, and I have to think through what this really means with respect to the issue of women signifying for themselves…I kind of found my way back to thinking that through through my work on Prince…and leads me to think about this issue of ‘eternal feminine essence.’ I don’t believe in such a thing in the terms I think it is meant when it’s used as an accusation – that there is some inner essence of women that makes them women. I do, however, believe that there is way of being-in-the-world (which in theory can be inhabited by both male and female people), which is *other* than a way prescribed by phallic opposition…and which we may as well call ‘the feminine’…but as an ontological category, rather than an essence…Interestingly, contours of this…this assertion of the both/and, or relation, of fluidity…is seen also in discussion in the Black radical tradition of the ‘meaning’ of Black culture, and particularly Black music… which leads me to suspect it’s not necessarily ‘feminine’ per se… it’s just the other way of being excluded by phallic opposition, and which is more accessible to people who are not enculturated to identify with white male power…but female people would be one of the groups whose culture, if it could be elaborated, would express it most effectively…

      Anyway, ramble ramble. Thanks for your thoughts and thought-prompts 🙂

      1. I went to an exhibition opening the day I read this (last week), of ceramicist Luda Korczynskyj. She spoke about the rules of working with clay, and form, that a would-be artist has to learn as ceramics is currently taught. One of these rules she spoke of was that a vase must not be “bottom heavy.” She repeated the phrase a few times, and eventually we – the women present – started laughing. I reminded me of the culture-that-could-be, in a world where women could signify for ourselves. Clay earth, bottom heavy vessel – rich with allusion, and delight.

    1. I saw them, which you’d realise, if you’d noticed the comment I left on the bottom of the one that is not yours. I haven’t really got anything more to say to you on yours – I find your work so confused I’m not going to spend more mental energy on it that I already have. You have to understand that from our perceptive, what we encounter is such a thorough inability it understand the distinction and inter-relation between sex and gender that it just reads as brain scramble. I appreciate maybe our position seems the same to you – although again, form our perspective, people arguing your side don’t even seem able to rehearse it correctly, conflate things which we don’t conflate, and then accuse us of conflation. I have no problem with people holding your analysis. The problem I have is with you not allowing people to hold our analysis, insisting everyone hold yours and that you have the right to change laws and civic practice without it being interrogated and challenged.

      1. Ah, I’d read that other piece but not the comments on it. And yeah, I guess at this point there’s probably not too much to say except variations on the theme of “no u”. Interrogate and challenge away, but some of us are still going to find those challenges deeply unconvincing. And I still don’t think your politics are capable of accounting for the fact that trans men exist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s