More queer theory: Monique Wittig’s “One Is Not Born a Woman” travels some disturbing theoretical ground. The opening approach, common to most of the pieces I’ve been reading, is the destruction of “women” as a racial group of a special kind— a natural group considered to be “materially specific to their bodies.” She asserts that the presence of lesbian society destroys the “social fact” which constitutes women. The argument is that women are socially made as an idea of nature, and they are socially, not biologically, compelled to conform to expectation. The presence of lesbians is said to refute the concept of a natural essence which women are a manifestation of.
Wittig assaults the feminist notion of the biological nature of women because it relies on the normative presence of heterosexuality as the foundation of society— a biological essence, as it were, and a generative hypothesis which requires the biological differentiation of the sexes to posit an origin for society. Wittig wishes to remove both matriarchy and patriarchy from the social equation.
Wittig rejects “natural history” as a force to be dealt with at all. She wrongly cites Darwin’s opinion “that women were less evolved than men”— actually, rereading him I find that he didn’t consider them much of a factor in evolution at all. However, Darwin seemed to be deeply troubled by the inconsistencies of sexual behavior and secondary sexual characteristics as a part of his evolutionary theory. Sex and natural history didn’t get along well; even Darwin admitted that. “Sexual Selection” was a secondary force, and only slightly developed this in his theories. Like many people, I think she unfairly makes Darwin a whipping boy.
Instead of natural history, Wittig substitutes “materialist history” to explain the origin of sexuality as oppression. Gender is a mark bestowed by an oppressor. The “myth of woman” is only a mechanism by which women are appropriated by the dominant discourse. Wittig speaks authoritatively regarding race, claiming that “there was no concept of race before slavery.” I find this argument specious, because slavery has been a part society from the beginning. However, using the definition erected, it becomes only logical that lesbians, because they are neither men, nor adherent to the “myth of woman” are not a product of nature— they must be something else, because there is no nature in society.
Wittig seeks to construct “women” as a class, not as a gender. Lesbians thus form a sort of underclass to women, whose rebellion is a political rather than sexual struggle. They reject the normative “roles” they are supposed to play. The struggle, in these terms, is not an eternal one— but instead a class struggle for recognition. But before it can be that, it must be a struggle for an identity, outside the normative myths provided by society. The polemic she promotes is to destroy “woman” as an inclusive myth.
To destroy “woman” does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation we have previously called servitude . . .
I really have some major problems with her reduction. Most lesbians I’ve met enjoy the sensual myths of femininity, just not the political ones. Most of the radical theorists I’m reading really seem to want to abolish sex, period. I can’t see that as a solution. Most people (except gender theorists) seem to enjoy sexual myth-making.