What exactly is the essence of female?

Is it some sort of natural inherited behavior? Or having female genitals?

When discussing gender and sex differences outside class you are often confronted with various thoughts on what the concepts of gender and sex really are. Most of the time, at least in my experience, a consensus can be reached that gender is constructed, and gender performance is something personal. However, more often is the answer to these questions: You can do whatever you want, but sex is biological!

The idea of the biological sex as the essence that everything comes down to sex is in line with Plato’s Theory of Forms. Plato thought that everything we see in the material world is not real but only a replica of the real object in the real world. The real object is the Form, which is the essence of every object in the material world. So according to Plato, an ideal must exist, since we can only make sense of our reality through this ideal. Back to the discussion on sex and gender; does this mean that an ideal of male and female exist?

Gender essentialism argues that the way you were born is your destiny. This way of approaching gender and sex is often also referred to as biological reductionism. Biological reductionism makes the agenda clear: everything is reduced to nature, and through that essence becomes the telos, an end in itself. It sees distinct destinies for men and women and limits the range of action, since, in the end, it is true that only women can be pregnant.

So, according to this, is it safe to say that everything is relative except for my biological sex then?

Every answer that comes to mind turns out to be problematic. Especially after reading Angier, Foucault and Lorde, who argue that every norm has nothing essential to it, but provides a meaning of the essence which is only in so far real as it means something in a society. Not even biology can give the right answer, for example if we consider AIS: females with female genitals, but a y-chromosome, who would rebut all kinds of claims of not being female solely based on a tiny chromosome.

This is where Butler ties in taking the discussion to the next level. In her book Gender Troubles, Judith Butler addresses the issue of gender essentialism in pointing out that “women” is as much a constructed category as every other constructed normality. The term “women” is not self-evident, since not even biology can provide one definite answer. Not every biological “pure” female can become pregnant due to various reasons, or even wants to have children. “Women” asks for boundaries and a definition like any other term, too.But how can I define such boundaries when no essence exists?

The answer is you can’t, but people do, and that’s the problem.


– franziska krause