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Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


Journal publication date2004
JournalJournal of Moral Philosophy
Number of pages19
Original languageEnglish


This paper revisits the ethical and political questions raised by feminist debates over essentialism. Reviewing these seemingly disparate debates, I identify in them a coherent history of engagement with 'essentialism' understood, in a relatively unified sense, as the belief that there are properties essential to women and which all women share. Feminists' widespread rejection of essentialism posed a well-known problem: it undermined feminist politics by denying women any shared characteristics which might motivate them into collective action. Re-evaluating two responses to this problem - 'strategic' essentialism and Iris Marion Young's idea that women are not a unified group but an internally diverse 'series' - I argue that are both are unsatisfactory, tacitly retaining essentialism as a descriptive claim about the social reality of women's lives. However, building on Young's idea that women should be reconceived as a non-unified sort of social group, I argue for understanding women to have a genealogy. Based on a reading of Nietzsche's concept of genealogy, I suggest that women always acquire femininity by appropriating and reworking existing cultural interpretations of femininity, with the result that all women become situated within a history of overlapping chains of interpretation. Because all women are located within this complex history, they are identifiable as belonging to a determinate social group, even though they do not share any common understanding or experience of femininity. I conclude that the idea that women have a genealogy can allow feminists to reconcile anti-essentialism with commitment to a coalitional politics.

Bibliographic note

“The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 1 (2), 2004, © SAGE Publications Ltd, 2004 by SAGE Publications Ltd at the Journal of Moral Philosophy page: http://mpj.sagepub.com/ on SAGE Journals Online: http://online.sagepub.com/