The incomplete materialism of French materialist feminism

RP 145 () / Article

According to one important and influential line of feminist interrogation of the category of sex, we only believe that there are two biological sexes because our thought and perception are constrained by the two-gender social system under which we currently live.(1) The French materialist feminists – Christine Delphy, Monique Wittig, Colette Guillaumin and Nicole-Claude Mathieu, among others – are among the earliest and best-known exponents of this line. In this article I will take issue with their position on sex, by way of an initial reconstruction of the history of the English-speaking feminist reception of French materialist feminism. I will use this reconstruction to bring out two key elements of French materialist feminism: (1) its proposal that gender can and should be abolished; (2) its – related – denial that sex division is a biological reality. I will then suggest that this latter denial damages the claim of French materialist feminism to bematerialist, and that – contrary to the French materialists’ claims – it is possible to affirm the biological reality of sex division and still pursue the abolition of gender. This is possible, I will suggest, if we adopt a cluster-based understanding of sex; some strengths and potential limitations of this cluster-based understanding will be considered in conclusion.

The specificity of French materialist feminism

Critics of the category ‘French feminist thought’ that emerged in the 1980s have observed that it is an eminently Anglo-American construction, in which the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous rank as the canonical figures.(2) Among those excluded from this construction are the French materialist feminists. Toril Moi has suggested that, ironically, ‘these [materialist] feminists have become less frequently translated and less well-known [than Irigaray et al.] precisely because of their relative similarity [to Anglo-phone feminism]: they have … been perceived as lacking in exotic difference’.(3) The French materialist feminists were perceived to be ‘relatively similar’ in two particular ways. First, like many English-speaking socialist feminists of the 1970s, their account of women’s subordination focused on the exploitation of women’s labour within the home.

Second, and more relevantly here, the French materialist feminists made use of the concept of gender, a concept that was also central to anglophone feminism of the 1970s and 1980s. The French materialists insisted that women’s subordination was caused by social arrangements and not biology, and, being social, could be removed. Thus it appeared that the French materialists adhered to the same sex/gender distinction that English-speaking feminists did, with both groups (apparently) holding that there are biological sex differences between males and females but that these do not cause the gender division between men and women, which is social in origin.

Actually, though, the fact that the French materialists used the concept of gender obscured the fact that they understood their conception of gender to differ from – and to radicalize – the prevailing anglophone conception. Delphy claims that most feminists who use the concept of gender accept that because there are two sexes, there must be two genders, which means that these feminists can only aim to redefine the genders non-hierarchically but not to abolish gender altogether.(4) In contrast, Delphy maintains that the gender division is necessarily hierarchical so that feminists must aim to abolish gender, and hence need to show that this division is entirely independent of, not necessitated by, biology (otherwise, we may assume, the division could not be abolished any more than biology can).

Because Delphy (and other French materialists) reconceive gender division as completely independent of sex difference, they rename this reconceived division, largely avoiding calling it a ‘gender’ (genre) division. Nicole-Claude Mathieu renames gender ‘social sex’ (sexe social), while Delphy (in earlier work) renames the genders ‘sex-classes’ (classes de sexe).(5) This seems puzzling, since their talk of ‘social sex’ and ‘sex-class’ might lead us to suppose that Mathieu and Delphy are discussing sex and not gender. This supposition would be mistaken. To see this, let us focus on Delphy’s concept of ‘sex-class’, which belongs within her broader account of women’s subordination as presented in Close to Home (1984). For Delphy, this subordination rests on men’s appropriation of women’s economic, sexual and reproductive labour within the home.6 This relation of exploitation divides human beings into two genders. One is made feminine (féminin)or masculine (masculin) – produced as a woman (femme)or a man (homme) – by one’s position as victim or beneficiary of this exploitative relation.