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Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy

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This article revisits the ethical and political questions raised by feminist debates over essentialism, the belief that there are properties essential to women and which all women share. Feminists’ widespread rejection of essentialism has threatened to undermine feminist politics. Re-evaluating two responses to this problem—‘strategic’ essentialism and Iris Marion Young’s idea that women are an internally diverse ‘series’—I argue that both unsatisfactorily retain essentialism as a descriptive claim about the social reality of women’s lives. I argue instead that women have a ‘ genealogy’: women always acquire femininity by appropriating and reworking existing cultural interpretations of femininity, so 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, despite sharing no common understanding or experience of femininity. The idea that women have a genealogy thus reconciles anti-essentialism with feminist politics.

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YG, UK, Email: a.stone@lancaster.ac.uk

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