This paper re-examines debates surrounding Irigaray's 'essentialism', arguing that these debates have generated a widespread assumption that realist essentialism is philosophically untenable and that Irigaray must therefore be read as a non-realist, merely 'political', essentialist. I suggest that this assumption is unhelpful, as Irigaray's work shows increasing commitment to a realist form of essentialism. Moreover, I argue that political essentialism is internally unstable because it aims to revalue femininity and the body as symbolised, thereby reinforcing the traditional conceptual hierarchy of the symbolic over the corporeal. I reinterpret Irigaray's own work as moving away from her earlier political essentialist project of revaluing symbolic femininity, towards the realism of her recent thought, which urges us to revalue and transfigure real, sexually differentiated, bodies by pursuing their cultural expression and enhancement. I aim to show that Irigaray's recent work is philosophically coherent and sophisticated, and that it opens up the possibility of a radical and transformative kind of realist essentialism.
“The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Feminist Theory, 5 (1), 2004, © SAGE Publications Ltd, 2004 by SAGE Publications Ltd at the Feminist Theory page: http://fty.sagepub.com/ on SAGE Journals Online: http://online.sagepub.com/