"I don’t see why we should abolish gender. We should abolish exploitation and gender exploitation…The people who say we should abolish gender are the true essentializers, because they assume what it means to be a woman is set in stone, and it isn’t. Just in my lifetime, what it means to be a woman has changed dramatically, and the next generation will change it further still."
Silvia Federici, at the 2013 Historical Materialism Plenary, “The Politics of Feminism” (via mansplainedmarxist)
okay i find federici’s work very interesting (especially caliban) but she’s seriously wrong here. while gender roles vary across time and culture and are not “set in stone”, they have always been, and still are, used to demarcate masculinity and femininity and have always been boxes to determine “proper behavior” for males and females (ie their sex determines which gender they’re supposed to fulfill).
by abolishing these expectations and changing/expanding the definition of what is proper behavior for a woman you are abolishing gender. if you want to have it your way you can say “anything a woman does is feminine behavior,” but that is ultimately rendering gender meaningless because its purpose in a patriarchal society has been to restrict the behavior and actions of people (mainly women).
i also personally don’t think gender expectations have changed all that much for women. yes we can (in theory) be astronauts and CEOs, but we’re also still expected to look good doing it, as well as be willing to have dinner on the table and raise a family when we get home.
I can see the argument for the comments made by sendforbromina but I think what Federici is getting at here is something slightly different, and to be fair, not especially clear in the way she phrased the statement. It seems to me that what she’s saying is that gender abolitionists are functionally gener essentialists insofar as they tend to ascribe to the discursive category of gender a certain kind of power or agency that operates independent of its articulation in and through the discourse of gender itself. I read the statement “they assume what it means to be a woman is set in stone” as “they make the category ‘woman’ fully identical with and exhaustive of the various social forms that woman-ness might take.” Federici seems to be claiming that the position is essentialist because it locates within the term ‘woman’ a kind of final authority on what that term can mean.
Certainly, the term—as it’s articulated within a patriacho-capitalist political formation—does do things, and often those things are violent, restrictive, and oppressive. But to advocate for the abolition of the category that “woman” defines on the grounds that it can only ever and will only ever operate in the service of those violences is to grant it a measure of autonomy that elides the way that “women” is, as you point out, underwritten and overdetermined by other forces (particularly capital). I think it also does a disservice to feminist agency: the ability of women to dis- and re-articulate the terms on/through which their gendered category is constructed.
I think if there’s a mistake here—and I think there is—it’s with the way that Federici seems to rhetorically collapse “woman” as a signifier of gender as a system into that very system. Or, at least in this phrasing, she seems to conflate the literal word “woman” with the construction it points to. Because obviously abolishing the word “woman” wouldn’t abolish “woman” as a constructed system, and I think her feminism is (by a significant distance) nuanced enough to apprehend that. I just think her phrasing here doesn’t quite do that nuance justice. But then it was probably a spoken remark during a panel or whatever, and it can be hard to capture those little details when speaking off the cuff.
So yeah. I think there’s a mistake somewhere in here. But generally I kind of dig the claim that gender abolition subscribes, in effect, to a kind of gender essentialism.
My roommate came home from this talk and told me about this. What this quote is missing, apparently, is that she mentioned that several genders should be allowed to exist, as opposed to the binary; and she thinks that focusing on ending exploitation between all genders rather than total abolition of them is a response she aligns herself with. I think I do too.