36 Constructionist Vs Essentialist Feminism

Timothy Mooneyhan

Simply put, essentialist feminism argues that gender is decided at birth because of physical differences, while constructivist feminism argues that gender is socially constructed through conditioning orchestrated by the patriarchy.

In the Rivkin and Ryan text, it is stated that:

“Essentialist feminists argued that men think in terms of rights when confronted with ethical issues, while women think in terms of responsibilities to others. Women are more caring because their psychological and physical ties to physical being remain unbroken.” (767)

It is clear that essentialist feminism views physical differences to be the cause of gender roles. Though it kind of sounds like pseudoscience, the text states that things like giving birth, menstruating, and lactating brings women closer to nature, which in turn makes them more compassionate and connected to others. It is also stated that men have a natural instinct to become detached from their mothers, which causes their aggressive and disconnected traits associated with being male. What this, and the above quote is saying, is that because of the physical differences, and therefore a supposed tie to nature and others, women are born more caring than men. Reading this, I really wanted to be convinced that either type of feminism could be right, because I believe that physical differences play at least somewhat of a part, but the above explanation wasn’t doing it for me.

The explanation for constructivist feminism makes more sense:

“The psychology or identity that feminist essentialists think is different from men’s is merely the product of conditioning under patriarchy, a conditioning to be caring, relational, and maternal that may make women seem more ethical than men, but a conditioning nonetheless. The constructivists worried that the essentialists were taking an effect to be a cause, interpreting the subordination of women as women’s nature” (768).

This is saying that the gender roles of male and female were created by those in charge, and that conditioning only makes women appear to be more ethical and caring.  It states that gender roles aren’t something that are inherent; they are socially created.

The way I kind of see it happening (like in the beginning of time, oooh) is that women went through stages of “helplessness” while they were pregnant, while the men assumed a role of strength and protection. This sense of being stronger, or in charge, led people to believe that men had to be the aggressor and females had to be the caring ones that looked after their kids that they were already connected to (at least physically). These beliefs, set on by conditioning, yet triggered by physical differences, is how gender roles came to be.

So, I’m struggling with picking a text that supports one of these, but what my mind went to was how Ron and Harry from Harry Potter seem to be “less ethical” than Hermione. It could be stretched to state that this represents essentialist feminism because Hermione is physically different and therefore connected to nature (in this case magic, making her better) as well as others. Then again, this really could just be an effect, not a cause like stated above. Either way, feminism is more present than I would have previously expected.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Timothy Mooneyhan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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